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UAV industry growing with new applications, countermeasures

September 19, 2018  - By

As Hurricane Florence rattles along the coastlines of the Carolinas and Georgia creating havoc, everything that flies is grounded. Right now the hurricane has slowed to a tropical storm, but flooding is extensive and people have died.

As soon as the high winds subside, expect almost all first response groups to put up UAVs to begin damage assessment. Digital images gathered by these drones will assist forward personnel to direct recovery and rescue operations. FEMA and other search and rescue teams, already in place along the track of the storm, have begun to rescue people by boat and are expected to fly drones over other inaccessible areas to find survivors.

And, of course, a significant part of the coverage we will see over the next week or so will come from drone-borne TV cameras and links to network uplink vans. We should also expect drones to be used for significant data gathering to map affected areas for damage to homes and infrastructure — including powerlines, radio and cellphone towers and distribution centers, waterways, roads and railways.

Let’s hope that the lessons learned and experience gathered during the major storms of last year will help everyone operating drones assist in minimizing the time to rescue people and to speed recovery from this latest hurricane. Later, expect the insurance companies to arrive with UAVs to assess damage and verify claims.

Police forces are using drones…

The law enforcement office in Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, has been using a drone for several months. With more than 13 investigations completed, the drone has helped locate one lost individual and has also supported crime-fighting.

Rather than calling out a manned helicopter for assistance, the police are able to get a drone in the air within 20 minutes at much less cost.

FAA regulations govern how Dauphin County law enforcement officials fly their drone, including a waiver granted to allow night-time operations.

…while Colombia is testing drones to destroy coca plants.

Recent growth in Colombian coca cultivation to 516,000 acres during 2012-2017 came as a consequence of the end of a government program to fumigate coca fields. Crop-duster planes spraying glyphosate had previously reduced Colombia’s coca fields from 470,000 to 193,000 acres during 2001-2012, according to U.S. figures.

Meanwhile, U.S overdose deaths from cocaine are continuing to increase, while rebels and drug traffickers have apparently shot down several crop-dusters.

Lawsuits against the use of the chemical glyphosate have also been successful. Over-spray is alleged to have killed other, legal crops, and opponents also cited a recent ruling in California that awarded $289 million in damages to a groundskeeper who said glyphosate-based weed killers had caused his non-Hodgkin lymphoma.

Because of concerns, Columbian police have been testing drones — flying a couple of feet above the plants to mitigate over-spraying of defoliants — to kill coca crops and reduce the supply of cocaine. Apparently, 10 remotely guided drones, each weighing 50 pounds fully loaded, destroyed hundreds of acres of coca in the first phase of tests. Though common in agriculture for the monitoring of crop growth, it’s thought that drones have never before been used to kill illegal crops. The fumigation appears to be about 90% effective to date.

Nevertheless, in Colombia’s drug zones, soldiers will be needed to partition swaths of coca-producing land and to defend operators from angry farmers and drug traffickers. There are also land mines which will need to be overcome from Colombia’s long rebel conflict and which pose a danger to drone operators.

Counter UAS (C-UAS) systems are on the rise.

The Drone Dome system uses Laser, RF and Radar. (Photo: Rafael)

The Drone Dome system uses Laser, RF and Radar. (Photo: Rafael)

As fast as drone technology is developing, counter UAS (C-UAS) systems are also being put in place to prevent unwanted drones from penetrating the air above sensitive facilities — by detecting and disabling them. There are purportedly more than 60 such C-UAS systems available in the U.S., with more in other countries including China and Russia.

Systems use various technologies for detection — such as radar, laser, optical/IR, RF “sniffer,” and acoustic. Drones can be disabled by RF and GNSS jammers, by spoofing of both the GNSS navigation or the control link, and can be brought down physically by high-power lasers, nets deployed by other drones, collisions by attack drones, by regular or specialized anti-drone gun systems and even by high-pressure water cannons for very close-in defense. Anti-drone systems include detection and take-down dome-based systems and man-portable drone guns.

SpotterRF C-UAV radar.(Photo: UAS Vision)

SpotterRF C-UAV radar. (Photo: UAS Vision)

The UK government has acquired the Drone Dome C-UAS (counter-UAS), manufactured by Rafael, Israel. Detection is provided by an S-band radar (four radars provide all-round coverage), an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) surveillance suite, and a wideband RF sensor.

Drones can be disabled by a high-power laser, an RF jammer, or when very close-in by a high-pressure water gun. The UK system is expected to use jamming to bring down drones and doesn’t include the high power “hard-kill” laser option.

Depending on the size of the intruder drone, the radar detection range is around 3.5-10 kilometers, and the radar may also disable a UAV when integrated with the RF jammer. With an active electronically scanned array antenna, the radar is relatively small and light-weight for both fixed and mobile installations.

The DroneGun. (Photo: DroneShield)

The DroneGun. (Photo: DroneShield)

Another C-UAV offering, from SpotterRF, claims to solve the problem of requiring multiple radar elements to achieve 360-degree “dome” coverage. The 3D-500 radar enables full “dome-drone” detection from 0 to 90 degrees vertical and 360 degrees horizontal using a single radar with a 500-meter detection radius, yet weighs only 12 pounds.

Latitude, longitude and altitude of intruder targets are measured within a 1-kilometer diameter hemisphere dome. Following radar detection of an unauthorized drone, the system may be augmented by a slew-to-cue optical/IR camera providing a visual display to an operator — a directional RF jammer on a pan/tilt turret can then be activated to take-down the intruder. The system operates automatically to both detect and disable the drone, or manual control is possible to enable initial operator confirmation of the target before take-down is activated.

DroneShield out of Australia markets a drone detection and mitigation system probably best known for its DroneGun. The DroneGun is a point and shoot device able to disrupt multiple RF frequency bands simultaneously (433 MHz, 915 MHz, 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz), taking out the communication link to a drone operator — and also GNSS signals when so equipped — up to 1 kilometer away.

The full DroneSentry detection system integrates a suite of sensors and countermeasures including radar, optical, RF listening, acoustic, thermal and an RF countermeasure transmitter with greater power and range than the portable DroneGun.

Another example is the Rex-1 drone gun. Operating in the 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz bands, the Rex-1 rifle-like drone-disabling device is a man-portable jammer developed by Russian Kalashnikov Group subsidiary ZALA Aero Group.

Mapping and survey are becoming a major application for drones.

One such example is 3D mapping of a copper mine in only three days using a fixed-wing UAS.

At an altitude of 1,400 meters, the Erdenet open-pit mine in Mongolia extends 5 x 2 kilometers and is more than 200 meters deep in places. Despite strong winds and even some snow in May this year, one UAS quickly captured geospatial data that enabled three-dimensional modeling of the large, complex site.

Site management is expected to use this initial model as a baseline against which future drone-maps will be compared, and to plan future mine operations.

However, extensive preparations over a two-week period were still required, including the installation of 21 ground control points, positioned using GPS RTK measurements. Re-verification of these points was also required from time to time before the survey, due to changes in the mine from ongoing mine operations, including dynamite blasting.

A MAVinci Sirius UAV was used to gather almost 7,000 aerial photographs which were processed through Agrisoft Photoscan Pro software to produce a detailed digital surface model. All the data collected will be used to create various internal views of the mine for continued mining operations. The mine produces about 26 million tons of ore each year, leading to approximately 530,000 tons of copper and 4,500 tons of molybdenum derivatives.

UAVs make medical deliveries.

Some U.S. medical facilities will soon be participating in a Department of Transportation test program to transport medical samples and supplies by UAV — the object being to obtain test results and medical supplies much quicker than at present. Matternet, Zipline and Flytrex — UAV companies already involved in deliveries by drone — will use several different UAVs in the program, which also aims to set up a number of medical distribution centers.

Matternet has been delivering medical supplies by drone in Switzerland, and Flytrex is focusing on food and package deliveries.

Delivery drone in Kasungu, Malawi. (Photo:AFP)

Delivery drone in Kasungu, Malawi. (Photo: AFP)

Meanwhile, Zipline and UNICEF have established an “air corridor” in the city of Kasungu in Malawi to test the transport of medical supplies by drone. Rwanda had previously used UAVs to deliver medication in Africa. Other underdeveloped countries without good ground infrastructure could well benefit by using life-saving drone deliveries for urgently needed medication.

Supporting police investigations, mapping of mines, and coca crop destruction all seem to be good examples of newer uses for unmanned air vehicles. And when policing of drone intrusion is required, looks like there are many new options to detect, disable and even take down unwanted drones. I’d say we seem to be making good progress towards better acceptance and that the industry is starting to grow up.

And let’s all hope that the efforts of all first responders in the Carolinas and Georgia continue through the many weeks of recovery from flooding and damage that are still to come, and that people can soon get back into their homes.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).