The future for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) appears bright, because use case for them has expanded well beyond the military and public safety.
Last week, I spent three days exploring The Henry Ford Museum, near Detroit. Paradoxically, it is one of America’s finest but also least-known museums. Among the artifacts on display was a full-scale replica of the flying machine built by Wilbur and Orville Wright, which gave birth to aviation at Kitty Hawk, N.C., in 1903, as well as the bicycle shop where the contraption was built—the actual shop, not a replica. Henry Ford, quite the innovator himself, had the shop relocated from Dayton, Ohio.
Seeing the flyer made me think about how far aviation has come in a relatively short amount of time—the evolution has been nothing less than amazing. As I mulled this, I started to think about unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). Whenever this occurs, the first image that comes to mind is that of a UAV being used for some military, law enforcement or security purpose. Indeed, UAVs played an important role in the capture of Osama Bin Laden and are being used extensively to patrol our nation’s borders.
But other important uses have started to emerge. For example, the University of Alaska-Fairbanks conducted a field study late last year that utilized the Scout UAV—manufactured by Waterloo, Ont.-based Aeryon Labs and distributed in the U.S. by Datron World Communications—to learn more about the behavior of wildfires, which have a tendency to change direction rather abruptly, making them particularly dangerous and extremely difficult to contain.
Just two weeks ago, an Arizona wildfire provided a stark reminder of just how dangerous and capricious these incidents can be. Nineteen elite firefighters were killed when the wildfire they were battling overran them; reportedly, that wildfire’s erratic nature, driven by a change in wind direction and gusts up to 50 mph, was the root cause.
The Scout was used earlier this year by researchers at New Mexico State University in a trial that sought to discover how UAVs could be utilized by utilities to assess storm damage in order to restore electrical service more quickly after an outage. But perhaps the most unusual uses of the Scout thus far involved the counting of sea lions and helping an oil freighter reach an iced-in port.
The Scout is designed to stand up to harsh conditions, which was a good thing, because the sea-lion-counting and ice-breaking episodes occurred in the state of Alaska during the winter of 2012. In the former, the UAVs were launched from a former crab boat—reconfigured to serve as a research vessel—that was anchored in the Bering Sea, the same treacherous waters featured in the Discovery Channel program, “The Deadliest Catch.”
The need to accurately count the creatures was borne of a desire to understand how climate change affects sea-lion populations. The Scout’s unobtrusive form factor, quiet operation and ability to hover came in handy, according to Dave Kroetsch, president of Aeryon Labs.
“The seals were on the Aleutian Islands, which are rocky,” Kroetsch said. “But even if you were able to approach them, all they would do is scramble off the island and into the water.”
A few weeks prior to this, officials in the city of Nome, Alaska, made a frightening discovery: the city’s port was freezing over much earlier than usual, and the freighter that was carrying the supply of heating oil that would get Nome’s 3,500 residents through the harsh winter—the average daytime high temperature in January is 13○F, while the average low is -2○F—was stuck in the Bering Sea.
The intuitive response to such an event would be to ask the U.S. Coast Guard to send out an ice breaker. Unfortunately, the ice already was too thick in many places. What they needed was a way to navigate the ice breaker along a path where the ice still was thin enough for the breaker to clear a path that would get the freighter close enough to the city, so a pipeline could be extended to it. But there was no way to make that determination by simple visual observation. Instead, they dispatched the Scout to gather the data they needed.
“They took a ton of photographs all around the port, and what they did then was put those photographs through 3D-rendering software that enabled them to measure the thickness of the ice,” said Chris Barter, Datron's Scout product manager.
According to Kroetsch, the photos reveal pressure ridges, which provide important clues as to ice thickness.
“From the size of the ridges that they are able to measure at the surface, they can infer the depth of the ice in different conditions,” he said. “They know the terrain beneath the surface, because they’ve done accurate sonar modeling.”
I recently saw a press release regarding a research report from Reportlinker.com that predicts the global UAV market will exceed $8 billion by 2018. That’s not surprising, given their versatility and situational-awareness value, not to mention the fact that they can be sent into situations that would be too dangerous to send humans. Please forgive the pun, but it really does seem that the sky’s the limit.