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UAS 2010

By Yvonne Headington

09 Jul 10. The exploration of civil/military synergies provided the focus for this year’s UAS 2010, held at RAF Cranwell on 1st July. It is of little surprise that cost-effectiveness emerged as one of the key attractions of UAS for both the military and emergency (‘blue light’) services.

Delivering the keynote address, Air Vice Marshal Steve Hillier (AOC 2 Group) provided an illustration of relative manned/unmanned operational costs: one 24/7 MQ-9 Reaper orbit for three years requires £100m and 140 personnel in support, compared with £300m and 250 personnel for manned systems.

Wing Commander McCarthy, Regional Liaison Officer for the military with the Midlands emergency services, highlighted the importance of cost considerations in the civilian environment. While the Ministry of Defence (MoD) is obliged to provide assistance in the event of civil emergencies (within MACA rules) funding now falls to local Government under the Civil Contingency Act 2004. The ideal is a UAS asset that could be hired “at around £500 per day” (the equivalent cost of a Land Rover and two drivers) according to McCarthy.

The West Midland Fire Service (WMFS) operates the ISIS (Incident Support Imaging System) MD4-200 micro-UAS manufactured by Microdrones GmbH and supplied by MW Power Systems Ltd. Although described as a “highly sophisticated and quite expensive kids toy” by WMFS’ Andy Cashmore, the cost-effectiveness of the drone (priced at between £25-35,000) is evident when compared with £2,000 per hour for a helicopter.

The 0.9kg ISIS is operated by Visual Line-of-Sight (VLoS) at a maximum height of 120 metres with a flight time of 20-30 minutes. The drone employs a FLIR thermal imaging camera and live video relay that can be used to cover a variety of incidents such as: road traffic accidents, building fires, missing persons search and incident reconnaissance. The WMFS is currently evaluating the larger MD4-1000 which flew for the first time during UAS 2010. At 3.8kg, the MD4-1000 is a much larger vehicle with increased payload and endurance of up to 60 minutes.

Civilian and military requirements are not too dissimilar, particularly in terms of cost-efficiency, persistence and endurance as well as the collection and exploitation of data. ‘Blue light’ operators need to take into account additional factors such as legal consideration (for example, compliance with Regulation of Investigatory Powers Act 2000) and the preference for video images (as evidence in court). There are also environmental considerations, given the UK’s variable weather. The potential of UAS is also constrained by the need to adhere to civil aviation legislation and operations. Consequently, the greatest market opportunities are for smaller vehicles (weighing 20kg or less), which can be operated by VLoS.

Industry, however, is looking towards a time when UAS are able to fly routinely in civil airspace. To date, the MoD has received permission from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) to fly Watchkeeper within segregated airspace (Danger Areas) around the Salisbury Plain training area from 1st July. According to Lieutenant Commander Gerry Corbett from the CAA, UAS are possibly of no greater risk than manned aircraft but they would only be able to fly in non-segregated airspace “when considered safe” (i.e. meet equivalent safe operation and airworthiness standards).

Thales’ Nick Miller, part of the Autonomous Systems Technology Related Airborne Evaluation & Assessment (ASTRAEA) project, concurred that safety is a critical issue. Hence ASTRAEA’s focus on researching and developing “key technologies such as ‘sense and avoid’ systems” he said.

It may be some while before UAS become a familiar sight in UK skies, given the technical challenges involved, and the public relations battle may prove equally testing. WMFS’ ISIS was “fully visible” during the Glastonbury Festival and there are

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