Flying to the rescue
Written by: Philip Mason | Published:

Philip Mason speaks to two companies determined to demonstrate that the global deployment of drone technology goes far beyond hunting down terrorists

Drones, otherwise known as UAVs (unmanned autonomous vehicles), have been known to attract a certain amount of bad press, particularly when deployed by ‘global’ actors.

This is no probably no surprise, given that one of the technology’s most popular uses thus far – at least on the part of governments – has been to destroy terrorist encampments, often resulting in civilian ‘collateral damage.’ At the same time, the terrorists themselves have also adopted their use, with ISIS apparently threatening to bomb venues at this year’s World Cup using home-made devices.

UAV technology holds more than just the potential to destroy however, with a variety of companies now developing solutions aimed, by contrast, at saving lives. These more ‘socially conscious’ uses include the convenient and efficient supply of aid to disaster zones, as well as the employment of drones to rid the oceans of plastics.

Choked and entangled
According to figures released by Greenpeace, each year an estimated 12.7 million tonnes of plastic ends up in the world’s oceans. This “plastic soup,” as the organisation refers to it, “chokes and entangles” sea life, while also making its way into the food chain via the numerous creatures which mistake it for a source of nourishment.

Currently, efforts to rectify this situation range from the deployment of battalions of seaborne volunteers, to the roll out of ‘passive’ barriers floating in the water itself. But these methods tend to be less than efficient. Step forward consultancy Drone Major Group, and its plan to employ teams of hybrid UAV systems across the world’s oceans, funded by the organisations responsible for the plastics being there in the first place.

Drone Major’s founder and chief executive Robert Garbett says: “At the moment, the process of clearing the plastic out of the water takes place in two stages.

“First it has to be located using aircraft, after which volunteers are sent out with hooks and nets to retrieve it from the sea. This is a phenomenally slow – and very expensive – process, and once you’ve found the plastic by air it’s invariably moved by the time the vessels have arrived to start the clean-up.”

He continues: “What we’re proposing is a three-part automated system, based around a large catamaran unit. Underneath that would be cleaning technology and an ROV (remotely operated underwater vehicle), while a heavy-duty, all weather, UAV is tethered to a mast. The whole thing generates its own power through the use of wind and solar, as well as hydro- electricity.”

Going into greater detail, Garbett suggests that the unit would orientate itself through the use of “way points”, with its search pattern pre-programmed via a central command and monitoring system. Having arrived at its destination meanwhile, it would subsequently send up the airborne drone to scan the surrounding area for plastic, which would in turn be identified through the use of video analytic technology.

These way points would also be used to upload information provided by the UAV and ROV, for instance as the latter goes below the surface to take samples in plastic-clogged stretches of water. The submersible and flying units themselves would be controlled by an onboard computer system, effectively making the whole thing completely self-contained.

“In terms of the digital communications aspect, we’re currently talking to a very large global company about a low-frequency, ocean-wide network, deployed either under water or on the surface,” says Garbett.

“You wouldn’t need more than that – there would be no issues around latency, for instance – because the communication between the unit and the central point wouldn’t have to be constant.

We’re also bringing satellite comms into the conversation, as well as, of course, information communicated ship to ship.”

Talking to Garbett about the system, there are two questions which immediately spring to mind. The first is, how soon can this technology be put to sea? The second is about who’s going to meet the initial cost of the endeavour which one can only imagine will be enormous.

Dealing with the second question first, he says: “Our vision is essentially dependent on a global retail organisation to put themselves forward as an act of corporate responsibility. Perhaps a particular company with a red and white logo...

“You could in theory monetise the data, or re-make something out of the plastic. It’s really not a money making activity at all though, other than in the PR and marketing opportunities it would provide.”

In terms of the technology itself, Garbett says that its far enough forward to be detailed in a strategic paper to be published imminently by the company. We’re putting the idea out there,” he says, “and if someone wants our help to make it happen, that’s great.” The project, rather aptly given its current search for a backer, has been nicknamed Ocean Wanderer.

Insufferable problem solvers
Prior to going into business as an expert in autonomous vehicle technology, Garbett was a major in the British army, something which he says makes him an “insufferable problem solver.” This perhaps also explains the origins of our second drone solution, which, likewise, was initially conceptualised by someone with a history in the UK military.

Invented by Nigel Gifford OBE, who was also responsible for Facebook’s solar powered Aquila drone concept, the Pouncer is intended to deliver vital humanitarian relief into hard to reach areas.

The prototype consists of a wooden frame supporting ‘wings’ made of plastic, in which are packed food, medicine and other supplies. Once this is decanted, the unit can then be dismantled and used, both as a source of fire wood and a means of shelter.

Discussing the origin of the project, Rob Forrester of developer Windhorse Aerospace said: “The original idea came from Nigel [Gifford], who had spent a lot of time in the army, cooking in ‘non-human’ environments – for instance, at very high altitudes while mountaineering.

“Through his military career he knew many people in Nepal, so when the earthquake hit the country in 2015 he decided to come up with a way to help people in similar, desparate, situations. He started to look at the idea of flying supplies in, and the design progressed from there. We call them humanitarian UAVs or HUAVs.”

According to Forrester, the Pouncer is deployable in the first instance out the back of a Hercules or similar transport aircraft, after which it makes its way to a pre-programmed drop zone. The unit is tracked to its destination through the use of GPS. (The company weren’t in a position to discuss onboard comms technology in any detail, beyond stating that much of it will be “off the shelf,” to keep the production cost as low as possible).

Discussing the structure of the unit in more depth, Forrester said: “They essentially use a ‘flying wing’ design, something which has been around since the Second World War.

What makes our approach novel is that we want to use them as gliders, dropped from a high enough altitude to cover distances of around 70 or 80 kilometres.

“Launched from standard aircraft palettes, we can deliver to up to 64 different destinations in one flight. We’d be looking to deliver them to open spaces, – for instance a football field on the edge of a town rather than individual streets, before deploying a drone chute to slow for landing.”

Working on the basis that permission has been given to access a country’s air space, the Pouncer could in theory be used in any number of situations requiring humanitarian aid, for example, providing much needed food to famine stricken areas or medicines to areas suffering from epidemics.

As positive as this clearly is, is there not also a chance that the device might be viewed with suspicion, particularly in areas where similar technology has previously been used to obliterate terrorists? What measures are in place – if the worst comes to the worst – to make sure they don’t get shot out of the sky?

“You could certainly see a scenario where they could be brought down with rocket launchers or a lucky shot from a gun” says Forrester. “But ultimately it just wouldn’t be cost effective, given how many Pouncers could be deployed at any one time, offset against the cost, for instance, of a single Stinger missile. You’d essentially be shooting down a flying hamper, so if you do hit them all that really happens is that food goes all over the floor.”

He continues: “The units will also be very hard to see over 500 feet, which will make them quite difficult to shoot at, whether that’s with a rocket launcher or a gun. We really don’t imagine it being an issue, and there are no counter-measures on board.

“In terms of waste, there’s far more with existing aid parachute delivery systems.”

As with the Ocean Wanderer project, the Pouncer is in the middle of its development process, with Windhorse currently keeping a variety of non-governmental organisations briefed on progress, and how they might use the solution and what they require. The company expects that deployment will begin in late 2019 – keep reading Land Mobile for updates.

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