FlightWave demonstrates Edge's capabilities during three-week voyage in Pacific Ocean

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Over a three-week period this summer, FlightWave Aerospace participated in the “Exploring Fronts with Multiple Robotics expedition,” as part of a high-tech research mission in the Pacific Ocean, approximately 1,000 miles west of Southern California in an area called the Subtropical Front.

Led by Principal Investigator João Tasso de Figueiredo Borges de Sousa of the Laboratório de Sistemas e Tecnologias Subaquáticas (LSTS) from Porto University and his team, the mission sought to establish a new method for observing dynamic ocean systems and processes with autonomous vehicles that maintain constant communication between themselves and a remote control center on the Schmidt Ocean Institute's research ship, R/V Falkor.

During the mission, FlightWave’s Edge UAS was used to collect ocean data from above the R/V Falkor. According to FlightWave cofounder and CTO Trent Lukaczyk, who managed, monitored and piloted the Edge, by the time they got to their destination, all they could see was the horizon all the way around them.

Operational challenges

Operating a UAS that far out at sea off the deck of a constantly moving ship is anything but easy, as that part of the ocean is one of the harshest environments on the planet, making it hard to do anything out there, Lukaczyk says, let alone flying a UAS to collect data.

Fortunately, though, Falkor had a “nice set of procedures” put in place that helped researchers and engineers stay safe and communicate with the whole operation. The team just had to give a heads up to one of the Marine Technicians so that they could help the team get radios set up and the deck cleared for flight operations. 

Then, the team would radio call to the bridge to ask for permission to take off and land, in case something else was going on around the ship that they should wait for. 

“As a drone pilot, it was super, super cool to be asking the bridge for permission to takeoff,” Lukaczyk tells AUVSI via email. “I’ve never flown a manned aircraft (yet) so this felt so much what I imagine it would be like to be talking to an air traffic control tower.”

Additional challenges associated with operating so far out sea included taking off and landing from really tight spaces, operating over the water, and really gusty winds.

The only good place to land the UAS was back on the R/V Falkor, Lukaczyk says. With only a two to three-meter square platform to take off and land, the ability to take off and land vertically became that much more critical. But this actually made the operation “a lot safer,” Lukaczyk explains, because the team had the ability to maneuver around and make sure that they were going to land in the place that they intended to.

In terms of operating over a space as large as the ocean, the team needed to be able to fly fast and far, which made it important for the UAS to be able to fly like an airplane.

While this isn’t the first time that a UAS has been flown over the ocean from a ship — there are many UAS out there that are pure fixed-wings, Lukaczyk notes — usually, to get them off of the ship, they have to be launched on a catapult, and to get them back on, they have to be crashed into a net.

“It's really complicated, and a bit dangerous to land on a ship without being able to hover,” Lukaczyk says. But “that’s a logistical footprint challenge that we overcame with the Edge,” he adds.

Operating in the wind was no easy task, being that when the team was out on the ocean, they never saw wind below 10 knots. In fact, they were routinely taking off and landing in 20-22 knot winds, which is about 24 miles an hour.

This is already challenging for a normal quadcopter when it is hovering, but this was yet another challenge that the Edge was designed to handle.

Built to handle all of the challenges that one may run into while operating out on the ocean, the Edge performed exactly as expected during its three-week voyage.

“The Edge did great!” Lukaczyk says. “Just from a ground level perspective, the Edge took off and landed 20 times and was in the air for 450 minutes over the 3-week period aboard the R/V Falkor, and we came back with all the vehicles that we set to sea with.”

‘Like taking an EKG of your heart’

Lukaczyk says that the ocean data that they collected “is like taking an EKG of your heart,” adding that “it’s fundamental to the operation of the Earth’s life support system.”

During the mission, the team measured the temperature and salinity of the water to understand the health of that part of the ocean's ecosystem.

“We went out there looking for a really sharp change in the saltiness of the water (the salinity) and one of the ways we did that was swimming these underwater vehicles,” Lukaczyk says.

“It turned out that the change in salinity happens to correlate well with change in temperature and so with the Edge we were flying with a thermal camera to measure the temperature of the water.” 

This type of data is crucial to tracking climate change, pollution, fishing, ocean acidification and more, Lukaczyk says.

On another level, Lukaczyk points out, the team was also testing the methodology of using autonomous robotic vehicles to collect that data in a harsh ocean environment, as the way that they went about collecting the data on this mission has never been done before. In total, the team came back with about 14 terabytes of data generated over the three-week period.

“We had resolution over an enormous area that would not be possible without these vehicles,” Lukaczyk says.

With the success of this mission, Lukaczyk says that this won’t be the last time the Edge is used for ocean research.

“There are plans in the works for future missions using the Edge for ocean research. In the future, the ideal application is to take not just 1 ship out, but to take five ships out and have autonomous robots on each of the them, covering more ocean and collecting more data,” Lukaczyk says. “From there, there's potential for autonomous boats that charge the airplanes and the underwater vehicles so you have a fleet of perpetual maritime assets collecting ocean research.”

Video footage from the expedition can be seen below: