Friday, August 24, 2012

Drones are monitoring sea mammals, keeping tabs on oil spills, helping governments prevent floods.

Every year, AUVSI, the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International,hosts the biggest conference and trade show for drones in the country (but don't call them drones there; the term is UAS, for Unmanned Aerial Systems, please).

The industry group's last convention was in Las Vegas, and wrapped up earlier this month. A colleague who was there sent me the exhibition catalog. As is the custom nowadays, you could have read all that info online. But the printed version was still worth reading, and served as a snapshot of the "state of the drone."

I've taken four of what I thought were the most interesting talks, and pasted their descriptions here. The list includes researchers and developers using drones to monitor oil spills and the health of marine mammals. In one discussion, a Thai UAV company claims their technology helped the government make decisions that averted a major flood from inundating Bangkok.

Thar She Blows: Ground-Based Support for ScanEagle Operations in Civilian Airspace

The ScanEagle unmanned aircraft system (UAS) has been used to conduct marine mammal surveys in non-segregated civilian airspace. Using an unmanned aircraft for aerial surveys is thought to have many benefits, which includes eliminating the risk to the pilots that traditionally perform manned aerial surveys. One series of surveys was conducted approximately 23 nautical miles from an international airport. This meant that the operating environment included a wide variety of aircraft. Thus, the environment was also ideal for demonstrating the benefits of ground-based sense and avoid support for UAS operations.

Small UAS Utility Assessment During Maritime Oil Spill Response Exercise

NOAA conducted a demonstration and evaluated the utility of a small UAS to support a maritime oil spill during major multiagency spill exercise. The small UAS was employed from a vessel to detect, quantify and monitor a simulated oil spill (fluorescein dye), as well as assess remote shorelines and wildlife impacted by the spill. The small UAS imagery and metadata were used to estimate the extent of the oil spill, and imagery was disseminated real-time to the shore side incident command post, other response vessels and Internet-connected responders.

Testing Small UAS for Mapping Coastal Regions with Ship-Based Operations in the Harsh Conditions of the Aleutian Islands

In partnership with multiple organizations including NOAA and Alaska fisherman, the University of Alaska is developing methods to improve the process of executing airborne marine mammal surveys in the Aleutian Islands. Deployments have tested and evaluated multiple maritime aircraft to better understand the demands this harsh environment places on a system. New payloads tailored for this mission have also been developed and tested, as well as novel ways to process the imagery data. This presentation describes the need for this work, the objectives of the project, the logic behind the conclusion that  unmanned aircraft can perform the task more effective and safer than manned platforms, as well as some of the results and experiences gained.

Lessons Learned from the Great Thailand Flood 2011: How UAVs Help Scientists with Emergency Response and Disaster Aversion

Disaster monitoring as well as emergency response are becoming important tasks that suit UAS for civilian applications. Srivaree-Ratna and his team used Thailand-made UAS to help scientists gather data for flood simulation during the great Thailand flood that affected more than 25 million people, or 40 percent, of the Thai population. They have flown more than 60 flights ovr the period of 45 days to gather information needed to help prevent Bangkok from the great Thailand flood of 2011. In the end, they prevented Bangkok from a major flood, which seemed inevitable at the time. Their UAS fly over Bangkok metropolitan areas including skyscrapers, the suburbs of Bangkok, and neighboring provinces. 

[Top: Photo of the Insitu ScanEagle, from a press release about the marine mammal survey in Australia
Bottom: Video from  Siam UAV Industries of flooding in Thailand]