If you heard a thrumming noise above your head while you were walking down the street today you’d probably just think it was a helicopter passing overhead. In the not so distant future it could well be the sound of a law enforcement drone on patrol.
It’s been a long time since drones were science fiction, they are now very much science fact. In the Official U.S. Navy photo below the USS Thach is launching an aerial drone as part of a firing exercise.
Drone is the more commonly used name for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s). UAV’s are aircraft that are either autonomous, with their reactions based on programming, or manned remotely by operators nearby or potentially as far away as a different country altogether.
Readers who watched the new movie Bourne Legacy will have seen a hunter killer drone in action during the early part of the film and wondered if this was real technology. The answer is yes. Drones have been used extensively to carry out assassination of “enemy combatants” in recent international war zones.
While they have been used for some time by military forces around the world, media attention has been drawn towards them because of their increased use in the Middle East by the US military and recent moves to allow more affordable versions for police, industrial and civilian purposes.
Popular internet cartoon XKCD has commented on drones saying that
“We live in a world where there are actual fleets of robot assassins patrolling the skies. At some point there, we left the present and entered the future”.
With names like Predator, Reaper, Hellfire, it’s clear that the people designing military drones, their weapons and camera systems aren’t hiding the lethal intent of these machines.
In the photo below by Rob Shenk a General Atomics MQ-1L Predator A hangs in the Air & Space Museum in Washington DC. This unmanned aircraft carries two Hellfire missiles under its wings.
Similarly the Gorgon Stare and ARGUS-IS (Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance Imaging System) video capture surveillance systems both have names with mythological origins.
Gorgon literally translates as “dreadful” or “terrible” and was the name of a deadly female creature in Greek mythology which turned you to stone if you looked at it. Argus is the Latin name for another Greek mythological figure, a giant whose title was “Panopticon“ because he had 100 eyes which could see everything.
According to its maker BAE SYSTEMS, the ARGUS-IS can pinpoint and simultaneously track over 65 targets from altitudes higher than 20,000 feet using its 1.8 gigapixel camera (made up of 4 arrays which each have 92 5 megapixel sensors).
This would result in 274 terabytes of data being captured per hour which brings up the problem that analysing this colossal amount of data will largely have to be done by algorithms or human operators checking only small specific time frames.
Australian Use of Drones
Drones are being used in Australia for various government, not for profit and business tasks however their use for non-recreational purposes must be approved by the Civil Aviation and Safety Authority (CASA).
CASA says UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) operators who conduct air work such as commercial tasks (hire and reward), demonstrations, training, R&D, flying for company internal purposes etc are part of the aviation industry and have a number of responsibilities and regulatory requirements.
Unmanned aircraft activities are approved by CASA for operations over unpopulated areas up to 400ft AGL (above ground level), or higher with special approvals. Special approvals are also required for other areas. UAV operations are not permitted in controlled airspace without CASA approval and coordination with Airservices Australia.
If you are outside controlled airspace or the airspace limit is higher you are allowed to go higher than 400ft there with Rockets and Balloons, but its a bit of a grey area. Check with authorities first to make sure it’s OK.
An interesting example of Australian Drone use is the Queensland UAV Outback Challenge competition encouraging high school and university students as well as aerospace enthusiasts to best perform emergency package delivery and search/rescue simulations. The photo below was taken at Kingaroy Airport, Queensland on Day 1 of the 2012 UAV Challenge by Michael Wilson.
Other examples include:
- Conservation – Sea Shepherd tracking down Japanese whaling vessels in the Southern Ocean.
- Science – CSIRO scientists are currently surveying the coastline around all of Australia to ascertain the amount of litter washed up on shore and its impact on marine life.
- Mining – Bowen Basin coal companies in central Queensland are using UAV’s for the delivery of crucial parts and surveillance of mine sites.
- Public Safety – Queensland Surf Life Savers are trialling UAV’s at North Stradbroke Island to patrol for sharks and monitor swimmers.
- Property – Real estate agents are capturing photographs and video of properties they are promoting for sale from angles that would previously have required hiring a real helicopter at great expense.
- Journalism – A team from the 9 Network’s 60 Minutes program flew a small drone without permission over the Christmas Island asylum seekers detention facility in late 2011, before it fell into the sea. This lead to many questions being asked about whether using drones for investigative journalism work is in the public interest or intrusive and dangerous.
In early 2012 Victoria Police discussed the potential use of drones for law enforcement with their counterparts from other states, stating that this coordination was required because they:
“Believe that in the near future Australian police forces will, in line with international trends, plan to acquire unmanned aircraft systems to extend their respective capabilities in life preservation, law enforcement and surveillance.”
Understandably this has resulted in privacy concerns being raised by civil liberties groups who want tight regulation of drone use by law enforcement authorities to conduct surveillance on the Australian public.
The Australian Defence Force (ADF) has used advanced surveillance drones for some time. As an example the Army used the Boeing ScanEagle for 5 years in Afghanistan supported by 180 ADF personnel, mostly from 20th Surveillance and Target Acquisition Regiment (motto: “Seek to Strike”).
On the occasion of its recent retirement Joint Operations Chief Lieutenant General Ash Power said the ScanEagle had provided constant intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance support to ground elements in Afghanistan since 2007.
“During that time the ScanEagle has made significant contributions to the force protection and situational awareness of the coalition force soldier on the ground [averaging] 22 hours per day over the four-year-and-10-month period – a tremendous effort.”
“ScanEagle has been the vehicle for the Australian Army to develop its UAV capability and the Army is now taking the next step by employing the Shadow 200 TUAS,” Lieutenant General Power said.
Manufacturer AAI Corporation says the Shadow 200 TUAS can see targets up to 125 kilometres away from the brigade tactical operations centre, and recognize tactical vehicles up to 2.44km above the ground at more than 3.5 kilometres slant range, day or night.
During its five years in operation in Afghanistan, ScanEagles flew about 32,000 hours in more than 6,200 missions in support of the Reconstruction Task Force, Mentoring and Reconstruction Task Force, MTF, Combined Team – Uruzgan and the Special Operations Task Group.
Buy or Build Your Own Drone
Remotely controlled devices like Radio Controlled (RC) Helicopters and scale model planes have been around for quite some time and there are many RC enthusiast clubs around Australia.
However the technology has really caught the attention of both media and the public since CES 2010 where French company Parrot revealed an affordable quadracopter called the AR Drone that didn’t require any DIY tinkering skills and could be controlled via WiFi connection with a iPhone or iPad.
In mid-2012 Parrot launched the AR Drone 2. As with many second generation gadgets the enhancements are evolutionary. Outwardly it looks quite similar besides an upgrade to 720P for the front camera which can output footage to your smartphone/tablet or to an onboard USB drive.
The real new features are all inside where a 3 axis magenetometer enables greater control and new pressure sensor enables the AR Drone 2 to fly up to 50 metres above ground level and stay steady.
Unlike commercial drones which can have battery lives of over an hour and military drones which can fly for many hours or even a day, toy drones such as the Parrot AR Drone 2 have limited flight times of around 10-15 minutes.
Note that since the AR Drone 2 requires a WiFi connection to be made to a controlling mobile device the height I can attain I limited to the WiFi range of the controller. Also at 380gm with the outdoor hull on it is quite light so the higher you fly it, the more risk there is of winds blowing it far away
If you’d like to learn how to build your own Drone/UAV the best place to go for advice is open source community at DIY Drones, founded by Chris Anderson Editor in Chief of Wired Magazine.
This article was originally written by me to be published in GEARE Magazine issue #71. However due to a magazine merger it did not make it to print.