For the past hundred-odd years, commercial aviation has relied on a human pilot sitting behind the controls of an aircraft. Today, designers and engineers are beginning to ask: “Is it even necessary to have someone onboard? Can we have adequate control with the human pilot on the ground, rather than in the cockpit?”
This school of thought is driving a revolution in aviation, with intelligent technology become thoroughly integrated into avionic systems and aeronautical processes. Sure, it might be a while before we see commercial airliners being piloted from the ground, but the development of miniature unmanned aircraft is well underway.
One early-adopter of this technology is Surf Life Saving Australia – one of the largest water rescue organisations in the world. The organisation has an extensive fleet of rescue helicopters and watercraft, a closed-circuit camera network linked with regional communication centres and, as of next summer, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) to help protect beach-goers.
More on Surf Life Saving Australia in a moment, but first: why is this technology becoming attractive to the commercial sector now?
Well, in the past six to seven years, we’ve seen a range of technological advances in:
- computer hardware
- computer software
- lightweight materials, such as carbon fibre
- global navigation systems
- wireless communications, and
- component miniaturisation of sensors and electronics.
Miniaturisation, in particular, is a real game-changer that will stimulate the civil and commercial market for unmanned aircraft.
Researchers and technicians around the world are hard at work conceiving and implementing new ways to bring unmanned aviation to the masses.
Potential applications might include:
- engineers conducting bridge inspections
- marine biologists monitoring marine mammals
- insurance assessors inspecting tornado and storm damage, or
- park rangers monitoring wildlife movement.
Unmanned aircraft on both the miniature (a wingspan of roughly 1m) and micro (a wingspan of roughly 15cm) scales provide significant competitive advantages over larger, unmanned aircraft systems.
For instance, military UAVs, which resemble small, manned aircraft or missiles, are expensive and cumbersome. Smaller UAVs, on the other hand, look more like model airplanes or toy helicopters. But they are far more than just toys – they contain very sophisticated avionics and sensors and can virtually fly themselves most of the time.
State-of-the-art UAVs are the size of birds or even large insects. Such tiny devices are even being considered for the pollination of trees. Small UAVs have even been programmed to play musical instruments (see video above).
The small size of these drones reduces the risk of injury or damage (to property or the drones themselves) following a crash. Some UAVs are designed to “flutter stall” when they fail, floating gently to the ground like a feather.
In late February, Surf Life Saving Australia unveiled a new monitoring project called Eyes in the Sky. The plan is to use unmanned aircraft to help prevent drownings at unpatrolled beaches and to monitor environmental issues along coastal zones. The lifesavers plan to have the aircraft flying over Australian beaches by next summer.
The Eye in the Sky aircraft, designed and built by Australian UAV manufacturer and operator V-TOL Aerospace, weighs just 1kg.
The aircraft’s batteries last for 90 minutes and it can fly as far as 6km from the pilot, to a height of roughly 120 metres.
Take-off and recovery of the aircraft are fully automatic, as is waypoint navigation using onboard GPS. Recovery of fixed-wing aircraft is usually performed using a net, but quadrotor UAVs (see image above) can simply land vertically on a small docking station about 1m in diameter.
The UAV’s pilot has the ability to “hot swap” different cameras depending on the mission requirements. Payload options include a colour camera, thermal sensor for night operations, and a multi-spectral sensor for environmental remote sensing.
Advanced image analysis techniques even give the UAV the capacity to automatically detect activities of interest, including persons at risk of drowning, large marine predators (such as sharks), or the presence of fishing boats in marine parks.
The Eye in the Sky project is not about replacing conventional manned aircraft, which are necessary for performing rescues at sea. Instead the project is more about exploring and understanding advances in UAV technology that offer flexible, affordable enhancements to existing lifesaving services.
We may be a long way from international travel on unmanned jumbo jets, but as technology continues to improve in the coming years, we’re bound to see more organisations adopting unmanned aircraft for an ever-increasing range of applications.
This article was co-authored with Peter Hill, Director of Project Development at V-Tol Aerospace.