UAVs used for disaster management, identifying threats

August 15, 2018  - By

UAVs made international headlines this month with an apparent attack on Venezuelan President Maduro in Caracas on Aug. 4 during his speech at a military parade.

The attack seems to have been mounted by those operating two small six-rotor UAVs similar the DJI Matrice 600 — one was certainly carrying explosives because it was videoed exploding. These drones showed up somewhere near Maduro and disrupted not only the president’s speech, but also broke up the parade with participants running for cover.

One drone seemed to collide with an apartment building, fell to the ground, and then fire broke out in an apartment on the first floor. Firefighters apparently disputed a drone explosion saying that a propane gas tank had exploded inside an apartment, but images show a significant hole blown in the wall below the apartment window.

A number of discrepancies could suggest that the incident was staged, but there were injuries to several in the parade below where the first drone exploded, and the apartment fire was only 400 meters from Maduro’s review stand. The “apartment drone” appeared to behave as if control had been lost, possibly due to anti-drone jamming. Check out pictures, a video and a comprehensive analysis of these events on Bellingcat here.

Zephyr-S launched for flight test. (Photo: Airbus)

Zephyr-S launched for flight test. (Photo: Airbus)

Meanwhile, on a more drone-positive note, the Airbus Zephyr S pseudo-satellite, solar-powered UAV achieved a world endurance record flight which was just 3 minutes short of 26 days, eclipsing a previous record of 14 days set by a Zephyr prototype. The ultra-lightweight UAV took off July 11 July and landed Aug. 6. This is likely the longest ever flight by an air-vehicle without refueling (balloons and spacecraft excepted).

The Zephyr S is the first of three such vehicles built by Airbus for the U.K. Joint Forces Command. The Zephyr-S flies around 70,000 feet in the stratosphere, powered solely by sunlight, and is aimed at providing short turn-around, satellite-like communications and observation services for both commercial and military customers. The potential exists to support disaster monitoring of fires, earthquakes, oil spills and the like, and to connect almost everywhere in the world that doesn’t already have established communications.

Following evaluation of the flight test results, further flights are planned from a new base at Wyndham airfield in Western Australia. The aircraft is extremely light and does not have an undercarriage, so it’s hand launched and retrieved under minimal wind conditions.

Joe Lee and paramedics UAV pilot Scott Mcleod confer prior to a simulated medical rescue scenario. (Image: Kongsberg Geospatial)

Joe Lee and paramedics UAV pilot Scott Mcleod confer before a simulated medical rescue scenario. (Image: Kongsberg Geospatial)

Meanwhile, at a deserted airfield near Pembroke, Ontario, Canada, a simulated disaster exercise, led by a Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) incident commander and supported by personnel from Transport Canada and the National Research Council, was evaluating a new air traffic management system supplied by Kongsberg Geospatial from Ottawa.

Integrating drones with disaster management air traffic is one aspect of the Emergency Operations Airspace Management System (EOAMS), a situational awareness system which provides first responders with situational awareness of the airspace around a disaster scene. The system integrates real-time data from a number of sensors, including 3D airborne radar, ground radar, ADS-B (Automatic Dependent Surveillance — Broadcast) sensors, video and GPS. Real-time information was presented to participants on regular computer displays and through a Microsoft HoloLens “mixed reality” visor.

Drones were flown beyond visual line-of-sight (BVLOS) at up to 2 km away from the airfield while the trial emulated emergency scenarios including a plane crash, a medical emergency, and the protection of a VIP threatened by an approaching, unauthorized drone. Drones were operated by the RCMP and local paramedics.

The EOAMS system displayed ground tracks and the identity of a variety of emergency aircraft, and emergency ground vehicles, and enabled safe flight of UAVs within the same airspace. Non-participating drones in the area of the disaster were also identified as possible threats to police and medical aircraft involved in the recovery efforts.

The RCMP and paramedic pilots flew consumer-model drones including the DJI Mavic to test the system’s capacity to detect small drones. Position outputs from these drones were used to verify the accuracy of the EOAMS-displayed plots. A light aircraft was also used to simulate different airborne assets, including a water bomber.

What was learned in the trials will be useful in further development of future emergency airspace management systems for use by first responders, police services and other government agencies in Canada.

RoboTiCan, an Israeli start-up, has developed a unique way of dealing with unwelcome, unidentified drones that intrude into sensitive airspace. With ground-based radar detecting and tracking an incoming UAV, its large, robust drones use machine vision and artificial intelligence technologies to identify threats and then physically attack them.

This video provides — complete with dramatic accompanying music — an insight into how their “Goshawk” drone engages, attacks and by brute force, disables smaller drones in flight.

At first encounter, the Goshawk octocopter appears to also be disabled by an intentional collision with a small UAV, but subsequent encounters demonstrate how it hones in on, collides with, and disables its target and recovers to attack again.

Compared to bird behavior, especially in the spring when nesting birds use similar tactics to defend their eggs or chicks, it does seem that its mode of operation could be very much like a hawk attacking smaller birds — hence its name.

The Goshawk uses strong, fiber reinforced blades to enhance impact survival, while its smaller drone victims may have plastic props. Overall, it’s large, has multiple blades, seems to use an attack move just before impact, and it recovers well. So control algorithms appear to have been enhanced for collisions and recovery. Its targets seem to immediately lose lift and control before they hurtle towards ground impact.

Not surprisingly, RoboTiCan appears to be positioning its marketing towards military customers, but combining this aggressive take-down capability with a high-quality drone detection/location system might also be a winner for civilian/government drone intrusion defense — Mr. Maduro, take note!

To sum up, we have more bad press for UAVs being used as offensive weapons, interesting progress towards pseudo-satellites as Zephyr-S completes 26 days aloft in the stratosphere, another UTM (UAV Traffic Management) system trial aimed at better air traffic control for disasters, and another way to bring down unwanted drone threats.

This last solution might be a better deterrent for negligent or intentional operators who stray into inadvisable airspace. The potential destruction of the drone might just get some recreational flyers to think twice and perhaps reduce these problems.

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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).