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UAVs: Flight of fancy - now the real deal


AS Australia considers adding Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) to its defence capabilities, there is a growing chorus for South Australia to seize the moment.

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Consider the facts. The US has clearly demonstrated that ‘drones’, the popular name for UAVs, will play an increasing role in modern-day combat, intelligence gathering and reconnaissance missions, with its ‘War on Terror’ in Western Asia.

However the type, capability and application of the technology extends beyond the skies of Afghanistan, northwest Pakistan and Yemen. For instance, UAVs have been successfully used for surveillance to enhance border protection in various parts of the world, a fact not lost on the Australian Government.

“If we invest correctly in the drone industry, building the capability utilising the core foundation skill-sets that we already have, there is the potential to build an industry base in Australia, with over 5000 jobs, over the next 5-10 years.”

As the technology moves from top-secret military missions to the mainstream of western society, UAVs are increasingly seen as an option in surveying, mining, inspection of power lines and maintenance of crops. They have also captured the imagination of emergency services to fight bushfires and combat crime. South Australian Police are considering remote controlled miniature UAVs, or ‘quadcopters’, for surveillance of criminals.

This all adds up to making UAVs the fastest growing sector of the aerospace industry.

But what is a UAV? In basic terms, it is an aircraft with literally no pilot on board. The ‘pilot’ is on the ground, seated in front of screens displaying real-time vision, remotely flying the UAV or managing a pre-programmed flight plan from as far away as the other side of the world.

The designs of UAVs vary greatly with some resembling the shape of conventional aircraft. Others resemble something out of a science fiction movie, such as Northrop Grumman’s iconic Flying Wing design and the US Navy’s X-47B Stealth Drone, designed to operate from aircraft carriers.

Arguably the most significant defence project involving UAVs in Australia is Project Air 7000. The Department of Defence launched the project to investigate the future of the current AP-3C Orion capability, in the context of ADF requirements for maritime patrol and response.

Through the Defence Materiel Organisation (DMO), the project explored options including the use of an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) as an adjunct to manned platforms.

Phase 1B of the project began with the intention to acquire a high altitude, long endurance UAS. The UAS is a vital adjunct to Phase 2B, the manned component of the ADF’s maritime patrol capability to ultimately replace the AP-3C Orion.

In May, the Government announced it would request detailed cost, capability and availability information on the US Navy’s MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft, produced by Northrop Grumman.

Since then, the new Federal Government outlined its position to consider UAVs with a report titled, ‘The Coalition’s Policy for Stronger Defence'. It stated, “We believe there is merit in acquiring new state-of-the-art unmanned aerial vehicles – such as the Triton or equivalent capability.”

Mike Mackey, MQ-4C Triton UAS Program Director at Northrop Grumman, provided an update on where the project stood from his company’s perspective.

“Currently, Northrop Grumman is providing cost and technical details to our US Navy customer to share with Australian officials as part of a government-to-government effort, to better understand a foreign military sale of the MQ-4C Triton unmanned aircraft system,” he said.

“On August 1, the Foreign Military Sales planning case for this effort was finalised, allowing both governments to conduct official discussions. We’re pleased that these efforts are moving forward and are ready to help provide information that informs future decisions.”

South Australian Senator David Fawcett, a former officer and pilot in the ADF for more than 22 years, said unmanned, but man-in-the-loop, systems could play a significant role in military operations.

“The ability to have the human control input and analysis of sensor output conducted remotely provides designers the opportunity to optimise the platform for the mission, rather than for human performance and survival,” Senator Fawcett said.

The Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) is the premier body supporting the industry.

From her Brisbane office, AAUS Executive Director, Ms Peggy MacTavish, said the growth in unmanned technology had seen the association grow from 60 to more than 400 members in just three years.

“The Australian Government recognises the importance of unmanned systems in the defence of Australia and for customs and border protection,” Ms MacTavish said.

“They recognise that unmanned systems are a more viable and efficient means for patrolling borders and we are working closely with them to take a visionary step.

“Australia has taken very significant steps, from the Federal Government recognising unmanned systems through to the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA). Our association works directly with the Federal Government, State Governments and CASA to address privacy issues.”

Ms MacTavish identified defence as a key area. “Even though people don’t often equate aerial surveillance with the Navy, we have to keep in mind that they are monitoring the biggest shoreline in the world,” she said.

Border surveillance is an enormous task and according to Ms MacTavish, UAVs provide a safer option. “When you consider how dangerous it is to put a pilot up in the air over the high seas and in all kinds of weather to deal with border protection, unmanned systems are certainly safer.

“The technology mitigates the risk as the operation is from a ground controlled area with a minimum of two people involved – a pilot and an observer or operator.

UAVs not only increased operator safety. Ms MacTavish said the technology also increased jobs and it is a point Cobham Director of Business Development, Mr Anthony Patterson, agreed with.

“UAS collect lots of data,” he said. “That requires lots of post-processing and analysis. It is an indication to the State Government that there is more ground-based activity associated with UAS than the current manned Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance (ISR) aircraft fleet based in South Australia. That means more defence and associated industry jobs for the state.”

Based in Adelaide, Cobham has been contracted by Customs with the aerial surveillance of Australia’s borders since 1995. Mr Patterson said the company viewed UASs as the next most logical investment into border protection technology.

“It is not a one-for-one replacement of current capability. It is an additional capability, one of persistent surveillance.

“Manned aircraft are limited by the eight hour human fatigue factor. For an aircraft to be airborne for more than eight hours requires supplementary crew to be carried, which then dictates larger aircraft, more fuel, higher costs etcetera.

“An UAS is not limited by this restriction as the ground based operators can be changed out regularly. Then the unmanned aircraft can carry more fuel in lieu of the crew and crew facilities, can remain airborne for 24 hours plus and avoid the need for multiple transit legs to replace crews. In the Australian context, the large distances and huge areas involved in border protection means UASs are a real plus.”

Mr Patterson presented a compelling argument for The Defence State to embrace the technology.

“UASs are the fastest growing sector of the aerospace industry. Secondly, the aerial component of defence’s ISR capabilities is currently based at Edinburgh.

“Thirdly, the Federal Government intends to replace the AP-3C aircraft with a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft, as part of its Project Air 7000 and both the manned and unmanned aircraft will be based at Edinburgh.

“Fourthly, South Australia is also uniquely positioned for defence’s UAS training operations with the Edinburgh Defence base, Woomera test range, the Cultana training area, as well as the Port Wakefield Proving Range ideally situated for UAS training rotations supporting combined Army, Navy and Airforce exercises.”

Senator Fawcett also saw an opportunity for an expanded Australian UAS manufacturing and support industry. “UASs vary in size and complexity but require many of the same engineering and systems integration competencies that underpin the design and manufacture of manned aircraft,” he said.

“I am concerned that Australia is steadily increasing the percentage of defence aerospace acquisition that shifts engineering expertise to the US or other nations, which decreases our sovereign capability. UASs stand to provide one opportunity to assist in the retention of a level of aerospace engineering competence in Australia.

“Given that Australia has an existing industry base for UAS manufacture and support, well negotiated contracts for both RAAF maritime UAS planned to be based in South Australia and Coastwatch UAS, potentially based in South Australia, we could see a role for an expanded Australian UAS manufacturing and support industry.”

One South Australian company with a keen interest in UAVs is Mincham Aviation, which has worked with the defence industry since 1996.

Managing Director, Darryl Mincham, said the company specialised in the niche field of designing and building aerial delivery systems. “We are also working on other UAV systems to support 3-D mapping, surveillance, etcetera,” he said.

Mr Mincham believed there was potential for a significant UAV industry in Australia. “The US is predicting that the UAV industry will create 70,000 plus jobs there, over the next 5-7 years. Unfortunately, we’re a little 'behind the eight ball' with regard to getting started. However, it’s not too late.

“If we invest correctly in the drone industry, building the capability utilising the core foundation skill-sets that we already have, there is the potential to build an industry base in Australia, with over 5000 jobs, over the next 5-10 years. I believe that we have a unique and rare opportunity to develop a globally competitive new industry.

“In South Australia we’re tackling the problem head-on. We, ‘the industry’, are leading a number of initiatives to make sure that we get our fair share of the action. One such initiative is the recently formed Australian Industry Innovation Cluster- Defence (SA). This group comprises like-minded, innovative SMEs, who are working together to jointly bring new and innovative products to market.

“The Cluster is still in its incubation phase, however, it has already had a few solid runs on the board, with products such as UAV systems, advanced sniper suppressors and a state-of-the-art, high-accuracy camera gimbal system, to list a few. Mind you, the Cluster ‘bucket list’ of innovative ideas is somewhat overwhelming.

“Both State and Federal Governments have shown interest in this model and the DTC is assisting its members along the journey. It is hoped that, if successful, the SA Cluster can be rolled out as a national model.”

The Defence Science and Technology Organisation (DSTO), an agency of the Department of Defence, has a long history of involvement with unmanned technologies including the GAF Jindivik project in the 1960s, a remotely piloted aircraft used as a target drone.

DSTO Research Leader Flight Systems, Mr Jan Drobik, said the agency researched a wide range of technologies supporting unmanned vehicles in Aerial/ Land/Undersea/Surface Systems (UXS).

“We’re looking at the full spectrum of aircraft, from very small to very large and, in the case of very small craft, we can look to nature for inspiration,” he said.

“Insect and bird flight is one such example. Here the use of flapping wings provides efficient flight performance as well as agility and manoeuvrability at this relatively small scale.”

The differences between unmanned and inhabited systems in the different domains are a key driver for research.

“In the air domain when you remove the human you can go to a very small scale aircraft, or to one that has extremely long endurance – up to months, potentially. Another consideration in the air domain is integrating into the civil air space.

“Another driver for use of uninhabited vehicles and the systems they offer are for roles that fall into the dirty, dull or dangerous categories.

“An example of a dull role where UAS can assist is in long-endurance surveillance/reconnaissance. A dirty role was in surveillance of damage at the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant. A dangerous role would be resupply in contested environments, such as remotely piloted helicopters.”

So where is unmanned technology headed? Mr Drobik said the technology had become ubiquitous.

“Low entry cost for the technology has resulted in a large number of companies. However, few are turned into successful military capability. Many systems make use of commercial off the shelf (COTS) hardware such as quadrotors, which can be coupled with mobile phones adapted as controllers and image display devices. While many of these have superficial appeal, most require significant advances to reach military capability.

“The miniaturisation of sensors packages, satellite links and all the technologies that enable military capability to be fielded continue to drive the development of new systems.”

The scene is set for unmanned technology to play an ever-increasing role in defence, border protection and numerous other sectors, and South Australia could be the launching pad for this vibrant new industry.

Getting UAV educated

In the engineering research laboratories of Australian universities, the brightest young minds are being educated for a future in unmanned technology.

The University of Adelaide’s School of Mechanical Engineering is one of the nation’s leading institutions for teaching students to research and design UAVs. The university has a long history of researching unmanned systems, specifically UAVs since 2004.

Aerospace program coordinator and senior lecturer, Dr Maziar Arjomandi, said it was possible for students to have a fulltime career in unmanned technology. “There is a huge potential to get involved in UAV design, development, manufacturing, operation and maintenance,” he said.

“UAVs can have application in civil airspace, particularly for monitoring and patrol, in addition to its vast application in the military.”

According to Dr Arjomandi, the educational requirements for people to work with unmanned technology were an aerospace engineering degree, mechatronics or mechanical engineering degree with relevant subjects. “The UAV research we do includes platform design, aerodynamics, control and navigation.”

Dr Arjomandi said he had worked on a number of UAV projects including, “Morphing UAV, fuel-cell powered UAV, search and rescue UAV, pulse-jet UAV and unmanned vertical takeoff and landing platform.”

The pulse-jet UAV project brought together six undergraduate engineering students who designed and built a UAV powered by a valveless pulsejet engine. The UAV’s design centred on its use as a high speed target drone or decoy aircraft.

In 2007, Dr Arjomandi led a team of eight students at the UAV Outback Challenge, who designed, developed and manufactured a search and rescue UAV. The UAV Outback Challenge is a joint initiative between the Queensland Government, the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA, a partnership between QUT and CSIRO), Aviation Development Australia and AUVS-Australia. The students, with backgrounds in the aerospace and mechatronic disciplines, developed an autonomous UAV platform with ground based control and surveillance capabilities.

“It was very challenging. The concept was to locate a person lost in the desert using his heat signature and drop a bottle of water in his reachable radius.”

The university also has a final Engineer Project for the year, this time featuring a project related to maritime unmanned platforms.

For people considering a career in operating UAVs, Australian Association for Unmanned Systems (AAUS) executive director, Ms Peggy MacTavish, said training was in line with becoming a pilot. 

“Only CASA can issue licences and there are a small number of Registered Training Organisations (RTO’s) in Australia, and only they can train unmanned system operators to a level of standard. But it is CASA that then issues licenses.”

This article originally appeared in SA Defence Business, the official publication of the Defence Teaming Centre.

The Lead: RAAF Base Edinburgh to house new unmanned Triton fleet.

This is a Creative Commons story from The Lead South Australia, a news service providing stories about innovation in South Australia. Please feel free to use the story in any form of media. The story sources are linked in with the copy and all contacts are willing to talk further about the story. Copied to Clipboard

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