Unmanned aircraft for Search and Rescue: not quite that simple, TV3…

(c) TV3 2014

(c) TV3 2014

There was an interesting item on Campbell Live last night about the use of ‘cutting edge’ unmanned aircraft for search and rescue applications (note the video in the linked article may not work for overseas readers). While it all looked very cool and exciting, it was a little misleading when it presented these small UAs as ‘…running on the spell of an oily rag…’, beyond the blindingly obvious fact that all the UA shown were electrically-powered and thus rather unimpressed by the proffered ‘oily rag’!

A reliable UA of any size is not cheap…your average Toyworld flying camera device may last for a while, but eventually you will end up with a large number of them scattered over the land- and seascapes. In addition they tend not to have the endurance necessary for any practical employment for search and rescue other than perhaps peeking into nearby spots not easily accessible by a person. You get what you pay for and if lives are relying on it, the device must be reliable and have sufficient endurance to be useful.

Unmanned aircraft systems are not really unmanned: it’s just that the flying component lacks seats in most cases. They all require at least one person to operate them and, for safe operation, generally at least two are required: one to control the aircraft, and others to observe the airspace for any other users and these may include not just other aircraft but para-surfers, kites and any of our feathered friends that may take offence at this noisy intruder into their domain. If operating at very low altitudes as shown in the video clip, the ground observers may also have to watch for vessels on the surface as well. Relying on volunteers is all very nice but UAS operators need to be trained and accredited to conduct any but the most limited flying.

The supporting infrastructure costs as well, not just in the cost of initial setup and acquisition but also in the ongoing maintenance including the regular replacement of critical components as they reach the end of their defined life. If supporting a SAR operation in a remote area, the unmanned aircraft system will probably need to include some form of vehicle, also not cheap.

All those video visors, laptops and viewing screens seen in the video clip? Again, not cheap.

It appeared that all the UA shown in the clip were flown directly from a controller similar to that used by the remote control aircraft community. While this may be practical for short (in time and distance) flights, this form of control for longer flights is inefficient and places a greater burden on the operator. All the flights shown in the clips appeared rather ad hoc and ‘zoomy’ i.e. all very cool looking but lacking the methodical search pattern essential in a for-real search and rescue operation. An effective autopilot allows the UA to maintain controlled flight and follow a methodical search pattern without constant operator input. Again, this necessary technology is not cheap; it’s not THAT expensive either but has to be reliable and also professionally integrated into the other systems that make up the UAS.

While I think that it is great that the national search and rescue community are researching the potential of unmanned aircraft for this role, and that there is a great potential for UA in this role, I also think that they would get a better return on their investment in time and money by not seeking to design their own UA or supporting the ‘I built a UAV in my garage‘ community and instead engaging directly with the existing (and growing) commercial UAS community both in New Zealand and overseas. I think that they would find that there would already be existing mature reliable designs that would meet all the requirements shown in the video item…and that reliability comes at a cost…

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