Sunday, 4 November 2012

Something in the air

Bell Eagle Eye
Some of you may remember when Merseyside Police crashed their UAV/Drone into the Mersey and on collecting the insurance, decided not to buy another, citing amongst other things the lack of all-weather capabilities and the expense of needing trained operators on any job. The drone in question was a small Quadrotor, similar to this Aeryon Scout.
First I'll clear up the difference between a remote control aircraft and a UAV. In a remote control system, the pilot operates with direct control of the systems, if they push the stick left then the flaps on the wing move in the direction indicated and in direct proportion to the user's movement of the stick. The pilot observers the aircraft from a distance and adjusts to what they see.
In a UAV the vehicle is flown by an autopilot and the human tells the autopilot what to do. The human operator gets their situational awareness from a display on a control panel, which is driven by signals sent from instruments on the UAV. This often includes the traditional pilot's view from either a camera mounted in the nose or produced synthetically from data sent back by the UAV.
Some people get very uptight about UAVs in a way that they do not get uptight about the police helicopter. In part, this is because as the UAV is unmanned they believe there is no one to stop it crashing if the communications links go down. The reality is that most crashes of Helicopters are caused by pilot error, something which a UAV is far less likely to suffer from. The vehicles are smaller and lighter so in the event of a crash they do less damage. There is also less to go wrong, which translates into less crashes. Yes they will inevitably crash but probably at a lower rate than crewed helicopters.
The bad weather issues can be dealt with by using bigger vehicles Like the Schiebel Camcopter S-100, which is a tenth of a price of the price of the EC135 that is the current Merseyside Police Helicopter. In my opinion, UAVs in the UK will be acquired to serve Fire/Police/SAR in a common pool carrying a sensor suite similar to the EC135, with a common control room that would operate all of a region's UAV assets on a priority basis. There would be pilots and dedicated observer staff in the control room, who will interact with the people on the ground, as the current airborne observers do. Additionally the ability to forward video to mobile devices like pads and will allow someone, at the scene, control of the optical systems.
A tilt rotor or compound helicopter will be needed for fast transit, from one job to the next. Something like Bell Eagle Eye would be more useful if it hadn't been cancelled.
The price of small microdrones is likely to drop perhaps to such a level that individual police cars and fire engines can carry small/micro drones and call on the services of the flight control centres to pilot them remotely, reducing the need for special training for those carrying the devices.
Beyond these Camera drones, the police may end up using Stratellites for communications but then so may the rest of us.

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