Robotic eyes in the sky tirelessly keep watch
Last Updated January 22, 2008
"O Canada! Our unmanned aerial vehicles stand on guard for thee!"
Okay, it may not have a poetic ring, but it could be the technology that ends up protecting Canada's Arctic sovereignty. It could also boost the economy, playing a key role in the discovery of new resources in areas of the country that have so far proved difficult — and dangerous — to explore.
Unmanned aerial vehicles — UAVs — are small flying robots that can travel for hours over vast distances. They can be packed with high-tech tools to gather data and stream video back to their grounded masters.
It's their ability to do the "dirty and dangerous work" in inhospitable places that makes them ideal for patrolling the undulating ice plains of the far north, says Siu O'Young, an engineering professor at the Memorial University Newfoundland.
On Jan. 22, his team was awarded a $3 million grant from the Atlantic Innovation Fund to continue research into integrating UAVs into the same airspace as manned aircraft — currently pilots have no reliable way to "see" a UAV coming and know that there's no pilot aboard, and there are fears of a mid-air collision unless the technology is developed further. O'Young's RAVEN project in St. John's is also working with the Department of Defence's research and development arm to commercialize the learning gleaned from flying larger scale UAVs in Afghanistan, where they provide low-cost (compared to helicopters and jets) and low-risk "eye in the sky" surveillance and reconnaissance.
"The vehicle we're using has a two-metre wingspan, and can be dismantled and packed into a case a little smaller than a double bass. We launch from Tuktoyaktuk and fly to Nunavut, then ship them back," O'Young said. "We can't fly both ways because of the airstream, but we can gather all kinds of data and monitor the terrain."
Siu O'Young, RAVEN's Principal Investigator, retrieves a radar-equipped UAV after a successful landing at Clarenville airstrip. (Jeff Newhook)
Drones go mainstream
Once costing millions of dollars and the exclusive purview of the military, a convergence of lower technology prices and increasing performance have pushed airborne drones to the forefront as viable commercial tools, says Ian Glenn, president emeritus of Unmanned Vehicle Systems Canada in Ottawa, a non-profit group promoting public and private advancement of UAVs.
"It's been compared to laptop computers — they [UAVs] have gotten smaller, faster, lighter and more powerful, while the prices have come down," he said. "UAVs are used commercially for boring work like mapping and they make a lot of sense here in Canada where we have areas with very little population."
UAVs are no mere extension of a hobbyist's radio-controlled plane. They are eminently more sophisticated machines, which can be "flown" from a laptop by radio remote control or sent out on autopilot to follow preinstalled programming instructions.
In the latter case, the operators map out a grid pattern for the drone to patrol, using the signals from GPS (global positioning system) to guide it.
Can do what manned aircraft can't
While the aircraft cost about $50,000 apiece — cheaper than a manned aircraft, according to O'Young — it's not the whole story. Only about one-third of the overall investment in UAV hardware is for the aircraft, with the balance taken up in ground technology for controlling it. When you add the cost of a crew and training, the UAV is but one-tenth of the overall price tag for setting up a UAV-based system.
Still, he says, UAVs are cheap compared to using manned aircraft, and the value of the data that can be extracted from unmanned flights in remote or dangerous areas far outweighs the investment.
"There are examples of UAVs being flown directly into hurricanes to gather data and then allowed to just run out of fuel because the data was much more valuable [than the aircraft], and we may see that also done flying into volcanoes, for example," he said.
The machines are also starting to get extensive use for mapping and surveying in the oil and gas, forestry and utilities sectors, says Sean Randle of Mission Critical Unmanned Services in Calgary. And they have a unique advantage beyond cost.
"The manned aircraft aren't designed to fly at low altitudes and the slow speeds necessary [for some types of mapping and surveying work], and they can stall. At that height, they can't recover," said Randle, noting about 10 people a year die in such crashes.
"It cost about $1,000 an hour for a piloted plane and crew, whereas we can do it for about $400 an hour," Randle added. "Plus, we're not limited to the number of hours we can fly."
Beyond surveying, Randle says organizations such as police departments and border patrols could tap into the UAVs' capacity to stream video of armed standoffs, drug investigations and monitoring areas for the smuggling of illegal aliens.
Mission Critical Unmanned Services of Calgary's Fire Eyes digital UAV controller. (Mission Critical)
Digital binoculars could make it more mobile
To take that concept further, Mission Critical is developing a pair of digital binoculars that will act as a field controller.
"Laptops aren't really mobile technology, you're still stuck at a computer screen. We're building binoculars so you can monitor the UAV and control it at the same time," Randle said.
Called Fire Eyes, the system overlays images from the drone onto an LCD screen inside the binoculars along with a stream of data such as speed, altitude and any other information captured from the specific sensors on board the UAV.
Additionally, users can split the screen so they can also monitor the drone via their own line of sight and control it with buttons built into the handheld unit, much like a video game.
Technology still faces challenges
But there are still a few stumbling blocks for the nascent technology to overcome.
"The biggest hurdle is public expectation," O'Young said. "If a UAV were to crash into a passenger plane or fall on houses, it would shut down everything. The military would still fly, but the commercial UAV programs would stop."
O'Young's research hopes to establish standards for UAV protocol and training. He says UAVs are already safe flying "line of sight," meaning the operator on the ground can see the vehicle and avoid any hazards it may encounter. It's in the line of electronic sight and fully automatic modes that give rise to concern.
RAVEN's pair of Aerosonde UAVs are set up at the Clarenville Training Location in preparation for a flight. (Siu O'Young)
In the electronic mode, the operator monitors the flying robot via a wireless signal, which is maintained as long as the craft is in range or the signal is not blocked by geographic features such as mountains or the curvature of the earth. In fully automated mode the UAV guides itself according to its program, guided by GPS.
It's in those remotely-guided and auto-pilot modes where UAV technology must be proven, says O'Young. He is currently flying Aerosonde UAVs — designed by a Canadian and built in Australia — in low-risk missions over the Atlantic Ocean to monitor pollution from offshore rigs and to check on marine vessels that may have strayed into water they have no licence to fish from.
To reduce the risk of an accident, if the UAV were to encounter another plane, it is programmed to "sense and avoid," and while it can fly manoeuvres that would make a human pilot black out from the G-force, it is also programmed to ditch itself should evasive manoeuvres pose a risk to the oncoming aircraft.
"Between machine and human, the machine will sacrifice itself," he said, noting most commercial aircraft have transponders — radio transmitters that identify a plane and help other craft avoid it — but smaller private craft often do not.
Canada could lead the way
O'Young says Canada has a unique opportunity to take a leadership role in UAV technology because of its homegrown expertise and the fact that the country has large, sparsely populated areas available for UAV testing and development.
"We're lucky here because not only do we have all kinds of adverse flight conditions — ice, wind, fog," he said of the RAVEN research project in Newfoundland, "we've also got Goose Bay, which was used for low-level NATO flight training."
But the window will only remain open for a couple of years before other countries catch up, he adds, so Canadian developers have a limited opportunity if they want to become the pace-setters in the UAV industry.
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