Not just for war: how drones can be used for good
28 March 2013
It's becoming rare to see or hear coverage of combat and conflict without the mention of unmanned "drones" and their use in targeted killings.
The subject rated a mention in last year's US presidential debates between Barack Obama and Mitt Romney - in which Romney supported Obama's use of drones on terror targets in Afghanistan and Pakistan.
US senator Rand Paul held the Senate floor for almost 13 hours earlier this month to discuss the potential for the use of lethal drones on American soil.
It is an extremely emotive topic.
With all forms of technology, its value depends on its use and who is using it. And so it is with drones, which over the past 10 years have enjoyed an ever-growing presence in civilian applications.
What's in a name?
The term "drone" is hardly ever used these days by those who work on their development. The origin of the term is unknown: some say it is because of the low, humming noise they make; others say its based on experiments conducted in Britain in the 1930s.
The original term was "pilotless airplane", which then moved on to "drone", and then to "remotely piloted vehicles" (RPV) in the 1970s, and "unmanned aircraft" (UMA) in the 1980s.
Currently, the most popular term is "unmanned air vehicle" (UAV); if one wants to consider the whole system (including communication, ground station and supporting human roles) it's an "unmanned air system" (UAS).
"Robotic aircraft" (RA) is another term bandied around to represent the growing trend in developing UAVs with greater levels of situational awareness and intelligence. Confusion will linger for some time.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems Roadmap published by the US Department of Defence suggests almost US$20 billion has been devoted to UAS since 2005. As with other technologies, the significant amount of spending the military has put towards new platforms, autopilots, better on-board battery systems and smaller surveillance systems has had a positive impact on UAVs in civilian applications.
Ten years ago, if a university wanted to develop UAVs for civilian applications, the development of the platform, electronics, flight-control laws, sensor, ground station and its software and communication all had to be done in-house, tending towards a multi-year, multi-million dollar program.
Today, this whole system can be purchased as an off-the-shelf UAV platform with auto take-off and landing, up to a four-hour flight duration, along with imaging sensors, for less than A$100,000 - ready to use.
Even cheaper platforms with less capability can be obtained for A$40,000. And let's not forget the latest trend in multi-rotor UAVs that can be bought and flown the next day for A$2,000-A$10,000 (albeit with only a few minutes of flight time and a low sensing capability - but sometimes the sensor can be worth more than the UAV platform).
Arguably, the media's growing interest in "drone journalism" could be seen as a good thing, although this could be a double-edged sword. In 2011, Nine Network's 60 Minutes came under fire after screening footage taken by an "unmanned surveillance drone" over a detention camp on Christmas Island. We can expect to see much more of this.
UAVs and robotic aircraft are currently being used for tracking animals, weather monitoring, detecting and tracking poachers, and in agriculture to measure the health of trees and soil.
For the applications mentioned above, small UAV systems are used, however sophisticated. But there have been direct purchases of what are "off-the-shelf" military platforms used for combating drug trafficking, and bushfire monitoring.
UAVs for civilian applications have a proud history in Australia. In fact, for many years, Australia has had some of the most liberal aviation rules for these systems.
Our best known example is the Laima UAV - built, tested and flown by the Melbourne-based company Aerosonde. In August 1998, it was the first robotic aircraft to fly across the North Atlantic.
The original concept was conceived by the Bureau of Meteorology Research Centre in Melbourne, with the objective of building a UAV that could collect weather data.
There are ongoing trials to use UAVs to chase criminals, for search and rescue, and in mining, invasive weed detection and agriculture:
There are many restrictions already in place on UAV technology to prevent its misuse. The two main ones relate to the autopilot and the capability of those in ultimate control of the platform.
The autopilot comprises of sensors (usually accelerometers, gyroscopes and GPS) and algorithms that can estimate the position, velocity and attitude of the platform. Those estimates are then sent to the flight control algorithms that both stabilise the platform and provide the guidance laws for motion between different locations.
With increasing sensor accuracy, and better flight-control laws, one can develop very-high precision flight manoeuvres. For this reason, autopilots are restricted through ITAR (International Traffic in Arms Regulations) agreements.
As for who is allowed to fly a UAV for civilian purposes, the best place to start is our own Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA).
CASA has been recognised as being forward-thinking by many similar bodies around the world, and has allowed Australia to advance this type of technology more than many other countries. The Civil Aviation Safety Regulations Part 101 outlines the approval steps required for an individual or organisation to develop, test and use any UAV for civilian applications.
Gaining approval to use a UAV in Australia - even remotely close to any civilian population - involves extensive hurdles. As illustrated by the examples above, almost all civilian UAV use in Australia is undertaken away from populated regions.
But as the technology advances and becomes safer, we will see increasing numbers of UAVs and robotic aircraft being used for civilian applications.
So keep your eyes on the skies - you never know when a UAV might be coming to help you!
Salah Sukkarieh is a professor in robotics in the Faculty of Engineering and Information Technologies.
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