Public safety UAS consulting group Skyfire Consulting has acquired a majority stake in a Maine-based drone design and manufacturing house called Viking UAS. Viking UAS focuses on high-end unmanned systems for US Military research, but the company has begun working on developing several purpose-built systems for clients in sectors such as public safety and infrastructure. “After nearly six years of helping the public safety sector develop hundreds of UAS programs, we are thrilled to be able to add the vast engineering and manufacturing skills Viking offers to our portfolio,” says Matt Sloane, CEO of Skyfire and its parent company, Atlanta Drone Group Inc. In addition to its ongoing work for the military, Viking UAS will immediately begin working on developing purpose-built drone systems for a variety of Skyfire clients in police and fire departments, as well as those that work within the oil and gas industry. “Viking prides itself on state-of-the-art design, testing and manufacturing high-end unmanned systems for military and civilian applications,” says Viking UAS founder Chris Taylor. “Adding Skyfire's industry leading sales, marketing, and trusted relationships with critical partners only made sense as a way to bring our capabilities to those outside of the defense sector.” Viking UAS will continue conducting engineering and manufacturing services from its headquarters in Saco, Maine.
Insitu, along with Esri, which is a company that builds mapping and spatial analytics software, has successfully completed test flights using state-of-the-art software to support the firefighting efforts of firefighters and first responders. The flights, which were held at the Warm Springs, Oregon FAA UAS Test Range, were aimed at helping firefighters suppress the Eagle Creek fire in Oregon, using Insitu’s INEXA Solutions professional aerial remote sensing teams, and the company's ScanEagle UAS. In coordination with the Oregon Department of Forestry and other governing entities, the ScanEagle UAS was used to provide firefighters and first responders with “optimal, near real-time data,” which resulted in “heightened emergency response efforts, increased situational awareness and safety, and supported planning and resource allocation.” The ScanEagle was able to survey fire lines at night over the fire—which had spread to nearly 49,000 acres throughout the Columbia River Gorge region—using the UAS’ electro-optical (EO), in daylight, infrared (IR) video for nighttime flights, and mid-wave sensors. Thanks to its ability to operate in dense smoke and at night, the ScanEagle is ideal for supplementing manned firefighting fleets when manned aircraft typically can’t operate. Smoke can be penetrated using infrared camera technology, which allows for the gathering and disseminating of geo-referenced still images of points of interest. Geographic Information System (GIS) specialists can use these images to perform analysis using Esri’s Geographic Information System ArcGIS software. The ScanEagle was the only “aviation over watch within the temporary flight restriction.” It provided constant nighttime oversight, and monitored the fire’s progression. Manned and unmanned aviation assets were coordinated by Insitu, and through data collection, analysis, and integration capabilities, near real-time georeferenced spatial data (maps tied to specific known locations) was produced. This allowed incident commanders, firefighters, and first responders to have data that delivered “updated incident perimeter maps, identified spot fires, located fire lines and hotspots, and provided near real-time video feed and still images of critical infrastructure, historical structures, and more.”
With the current iteration of the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) set to conclude in October, speakers during Episode II of the 5th annual FAA UAS Symposium – Remotely Piloted Edition reflected on the success of the program, and the immense value that it has provided over the last three years. “It is spectacular to be seeing this IPP coming to a successful…I don’t want to call it an ending because it’s a continuing journey, but we are coming to the final report here and we have learned a tremendous amount,” said Earl Lawrence, executive director, Aircraft Certification Service, FAA. As Lawrence noted, the IPP itself as we know it may be concluding, but the operations that began under the program will continue, and the FAA will continue supporting those operations. “The IPP served its objective to get us moving and get these operations going,” Lawrence said. According to Jay Merkle, executive director, Office of UAS Integration, FAA, the agency is working with the Department of Transportation (DOT), the White House and Congress on what will follow the IPP. Applying the lessons learned during the program, Merkle said that what will follow the IPP “will be very targeted.” “We’re not taking a gap year,” Merkle said, before adding that the industry is going to “flow into a new set of agreements,” which are currently being worked on with interested partners. Biggest return on investment from the IPP Along with sparking many lessons learned, the IPP also has the potential to have a significant return on investment, according to Rick Domingo, executive director, Flight Standards Service, FAA. “We’re continuing to use the IPP and 107 experience to shape UAS policy and also future rulemaking efforts, because that’s going to be informative as we want to move towards performance-based rulemaking,” Domingo said. “I think that’s where we’re going to get the biggest return on investment. [We’re not going to] be so prescriptive on how to do it, but [we’ll] put the standard out there and let people achieve that. And that also spurs the innovation that this part of the industry definitely has in its back pocket.” The IPP has provided the FAA with the opportunity to learn from issuing exemptions and waivers. That experience, along with the many discussions that the FAA has had with various participants in the program, has provided the agency with a wealth of knowledge that can lead to performance-based rules. “We’re going to promulgate those [performance-based] rules based again on what we talked about earlier: what we know, what we’ve learned. That’s going to go a lot longer and [result in] much faster integration than where we were when we started out with the IPP with no background and no performance knowledge, other than smart people bringing smart solutions to the table to begin with,” Domingo explained. Domingo pointed out that the FAA hasn’t traditionally been a fast moving organization, but the work that’s been done during the IPP has helped the agency keep pace with the constant innovations over the last three years. “Normally the FAA doesn’t move very quickly. But what you’ve done, what the industry has done at keeping us informed and keeping the pressure on us, has enabled us to move forward with the pace and momentum that we need to continue to integrate UAS operations into the NAS,” Domingo said. UAS offer significant tool for public agencies despite challenges Many sectors have benefited from UAS technology, but one sector that has benefited greatly is public safety. “These systems are great at doing a lot of things that we don’t want to do. The dull, the dirty, the dangerous stuff,” said Rich Gatanis, public safety training director at drone company FlyMotion. UAS have been especially valuable for law enforcement agencies, who use this technology for a variety of operations such as hostage situations and search and rescue. But getting to a point where an agency can actually launch these aircraft into the sky can be a difficult process, according to DJ Smith, a surveillance agent for the Virginia State Police. One of the primary issues that agencies face when it comes to utilizing this technology is the public perception surrounding law enforcement’s use of drones. Smith says that the public tends to express cynicism when they learn that law enforcement agencies are using UAS for everyday or operational use cases. According to Smith, the way to overcome this issue is to have clear transparency about the scope and mission that agencies are using the technology for. It’s also important that agencies explain to the public that they are using the technology to make their jobs easier and keep their people out of harm’s way. Transparency, and community engagement in general, was something that speakers emphasized the importance of during the Symposium. Jay Merkle of the FAA discussed how important a role community engagement played during the IPP to ensure that the public knew and were conformable with the operations taking place in their neighborhoods. “Community engagement and community involvement is central to the IPP,” Merkle said. “Trying to develop aircraft design or operations that don’t integrate well into the community would be absolutely pointless because they wouldn’t be accepted, and the entire industry would be stifled.” Another issue that agencies have faced is funding. The process to launch a UAS program for a law enforcement agency, combined with the reoccurring costs that go along with that, can be “dauting,” Smith said. A variety of factors must be figured into the budgets of agencies, both large and small, including how much it will cost to train people, get them Part 107 certified, and to have training procedures in place every year. Other costs that have to be considered are the initial cost of the equipment, as well as the reoccurring costs of the software and the maintenance of the aircraft. Tied into the funding issue is the constant advancements of drone technology, which is good in the long run, but can provide issues in the short term. “This is a technology that literally evolves every six to 12 months, and we’re just trying to hold on to the edge,” Smith said. FlyMotion’s Gatanis added that the “technology is always growing and that’s good, but along with the changing of the technology, the changing of the training and how it’s implemented, the agency needs to be on point with that as well.” Despite the issues, drone technology can be extremely invaluable for law enforcement agencies, and it’s a tool that all agencies should consider adding to their toolbox. “When you start talking about UAVs, it’s a very universal tool that can actually effect change in everything you do,” Smith said. FAA unveils new Public Safety TBVLOS waiver for first responders To support public UAS operators acting in an active first responder capacity, the FAA has introduced the new First Responder Tactical Beyond Visual Line of Sight (TBVLOS) waiver. A culmination of more than nine months of work conducted by various key partners, the waiver, which was announced during the Symposium, allows a public safety agency to apply to conduct TBVLOS operations “in a time of extreme emergencies to safeguard human life.” These temporary BVLOS flights are flown to both reduce risk to first responders and to ensure the safety of the communities they serve, according to the FAA. The FAA will issue in advance, upon receipt of a complete and accurate application, a 14 CFR 91.113(b) waiver that will allow temporary UAS TBVLOS operations within specific conditions and requirements, as laid out by the agency. More information about the waiver and the waiver process can be found here.
During the finale of the 2018 Minnesota State Fire School & Expo, a few dozen area firefighters learned about UAS and how the technology can be used in emergency situations. As a part of their class, firefighters received a lecture about UAS, which was followed by a live demonstration of the technology in action. During that demonstration, firefighters got to see the different maneuvers and functions of the UAS in the sky, and they could also view what the camera was capturing on a TV. The class, which was taught by Al Ebbinga, was meant to not only show how UAS can benefit first responders on scene, but it was also meant to “clarify the perception of the name "drone" and how it's been used.” “It is an aircraft and the people operating them are pilots,” Ebbinga explains via KEYC News 12. “You are a pilot and you're flying an aircraft in the national airspace system. We're trying to get the toy mentality out of there, but it's not a toy. We even try and shy away from the term "drone" and we refer to it as an "unmanned aerial vehicle" or an "unmanned aircraft system." Just to reinforce that pilot/aircraft responsibility.” According to KEYC News 12, the Nicollet County Sheriff's Department in St. Peter, Minnesota is the only agency in the area that has a UAS, but there is a good possibility that that will change. No local fire departments currently have a UAS, but that, too, is expected to change “dramatically” in the coming years, according to KEYC News 12. That change would be a welcome one for firefighters like North Mankato firefighter Corey Brunton. “A lot of times, we want to make sure we do a 360 around the fire scene,” Brunton says. “I think this could be a very valuable tool for that. Especially with the thermal imaging camera component, being able to identify where the fire is.” While there are approximately 30,000 fire departments in the U.S., but KEYC News 12 says that less than 1,000 of those departments are using UAS as a part of their operations.
South Korea's second-largest mobile carrier, KT Corp., has unveiled an emergency network service platform that features UAS for search and rescue operations. Co-developed by a local UAS maker named Metismake Inc., the Skyship platform features a helium-powered airship and a high-resolution camera that can scan for mobile signals of people who need to be rescued. Capable of scanning for LTE or high-end fifth-generation (5G) signals, the airship can determine a person's position “to within 50 meters” before sending UAS to find their exact location. Once the signal of a survivor is picked up by the airship, the platform will deploy smaller UAS that will deliver emergency kits and supplies before actual rescue personnel arrive at the site. “Skyship can find the name, age and other personal information when matched with their telecommunication data,” KT Corp. says via the Yonhap News Agency. The company adds that the information will be sent to hospitals and emergency crews as well. Once the commercialization of 5G technology is completed, KT forecasts that the platform can be further utilized. This commercialization is slated to start next March. KT plans to complete the platform based on 5G technology and further feature up to eight UAS by 2020. Additionally, the company also plans to unveil Skyship3 that allows 11-hour flights. “Skyship can fly unmanned drones up to 100 kilometers away from a control center, which is up to 20 times farther than conventional drones,” says Oh Seong-mok, president of the network business at KT.
Insitu’s ScanEagle UAS, paired with its TacitView and Catalina software, recently provided remote aerial survey information during the firefight against Northern California’s Camp Fire. Daily operational maps and full motion video detailing the fire’s movement were generated using the ScanEagle’s camera payload data and applied software. “We are extremely proud to have had the opportunity to use our ScanEagle and our data collection, analytics and processing capabilities to make a difference by providing another high-tech tool to help firefighters and first responders in suppressing this massive, destructive fire,” says Esina Alic, Insitu president and CEO. “Our hearts go out to all of those affected by this disaster.” Designed to be interoperable with government agency systems enabling domestic remote sensing operations, the TacitView and Catalina capabilities are valuable tools for fire suppression. Using the information provided by Insitu, Geographic Information System (GIS) specialists were able to quickly produce geospatial maps and perform additional analyses. In an effort to support firefighters, the Insitu Mobile Response team supplied this data for more optimal fire suppression planning in the Paradise, California area, which is known for its rugged terrain. With this up-to-date information, fire incident commanders were provided with enhanced emergency response efforts, increased situational awareness and safety, and supported planning and resource allocation, Insitu says. Operating at night, the ScanEagle UAS flew beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS), providing perimeter mapping and hot spot locations and points of interest. The Insitu team also helped CALFIRE and multiple local and national firefighting response teams in their fire suppression planning, by circulating real-time video feed. Insitu notes that its suite of real-time intelligence acquisition and distribution capabilities provide live Motion Imagery Standards Board (MISB) compliant video and flight telemetry to extensible mapping engines such as the Android Tactical Assault Kit (ATAK) and the Windows Tactical Assault Kit (WinTAK). Usually, these tools are used in defense missions, but they are now being adopted by first responders for various domestic operations, with one of those uses being in firefighting mission tools and products.
Following Hurricane Dorian’s destruction in the Bahamas last month, disaster responders used the Emergency Integrated Lifesaving Lanyard (EMILY) robotic lifeguard to provide islanders with medical care and supplies. The remote-controlled USV is equipped with high-definition sonar and sophisticated sensors, which revealed underwater debris that could cause navigational hazards. Disaster responders were also able to map a safe passage through Marsh Harbor— a town in Abaco Islands, Bahamas—using the vehicle’s specialized software. Within just two hours, the USV was ashore distributing critical supplies, and over the course of a week, EMILY mapped more channels in other storm-ravaged areas of the Bahamas. The use of EMILY is a result of a collaboration between several entities including Hydronalix, the maritime robotics company behind EMILY, the Office of Naval Research (ONR) and the Navy’s Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) programs. SBIR provides the Navy with “innovative advances in technology” that are created by small firms, while STTR transitions products developed by small businesses, as well as research institutions, to the Navy and Marine Corps. Over the course of 18 years, the technology in EMILY has advanced from marine mammal research to UAS in Iraq to lifesaving rescue innovation. “EMILY’s 18-year progression is inspiring,” says SBIR Director Bob Smith. “From whale-monitoring efforts, to supporting warfighters in harm’s way, to impacting global humanitarian efforts, EMILY is a classic ‘overnight success story’ years in the making.” Tony Mulligan, CEO and president of Hydronalix, and his business partner, Robert Lautrup, executive vice president of Hydronalix and EMILY co-inventor, continue to work with ONR and SBIR-STTR to develop components to improve EMILY and design spinoffs that focus on several tasks such as search and rescue, law enforcement and Navy mine counter-measure missions. Thus far, Hydronalix has provided more than 400 EMILY vehicles to navies, coast guards and search-and-rescue units in the U.S. and other countries such as South Korea, the United Kingdom and France.
This Week in the Unmanned Systems and Robotics World As part of a modification to a previously awarded contract, the Navy has exercised contract options with Boeing worth $84.7 million to buy three MQ-25A Stingray unmanned aerial refueling tankers. According to the contract announcement released by the Pentagon on Thursday, April 2, the three MQ-25s covered by the contract options are to be completed by August 2024. (USNI News) During the annual Women in Aviation International (WAI) Conference that took place in early March, AUVSI’s former VP of Regulatory and Safety Affairs & Chief Pilot Tracy Lamb presented a keynote address. A Ph.D. student at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University, Lamb led the development of the Trusted Operator Program, which is the world’s first safety certification program for drone pilots. (Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University) The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science and Technology Directorate (S&T) is helping first responders ensure that the drones that they buy meet their specific mission needs. Through its First Responder Robotic Operations System Test (FRROST) program, S&T’s National Urban Security Technology Laboratory (NUSTL) assessed small, commercially available UAS for priority needs of first responders back in Nov. 2019. (Homeland Security Today) University of Arizona researchers are working on a project that could prove autonomous vehicles can improve traffic flow and decrease fuel consumption. The goal of the project is to demonstrate for the first time in real traffic that using intelligent control of a small number of connected and automated vehicles can improve the energy efficiency of all the vehicles by reducing traffic congestion. (Chamber Business News) The Air Force is pushing to deploy its first Global Hawk UAS within this year. Since bringing in the RQ-4 Block 30 Global Hawk Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) in Dec. 2019, South Korea has been working to put it in operation. (Yonhap News Agency) The FirePoint Innovations has announced the final three teams to design a UAS concept for the US Army under the FirePoint C3 competition. The teams are the Buhler High School Science Club from Wichita; Team Vol Air from the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, and Pistol Pete’s Propulsion Posse from Oklahoma State University. (Army Technology) The US Department of Energy’s (DOE’s) National Renewable Energy Laboratory (NREL) has announced the 11 winners of the DISCOVER Competition, which is the first stage of the Powering the Blue Economy: Ocean Observing Prize. To help accelerate the growth of the blue economy and the development of the marine energy sector, 10 of the winners received $10,000 each, and one grand prize winner received $25,000. (StreetInsider.com)
The Washington State Patrol (WSP) is crediting its UAS with helping to ease backups that are caused by crashes on the road. Since the start of WSP’s pilot program back in July, UAS have been used to fly over 20 crash scenes. According to Washington State Patrol Detective Eric Gunderson, one of the UAS named ‘Ice Man’ recently flew over a rollover crash that was blocking two lanes of traffic on Interstate-5 in Tacoma, Washington. Gunderson says that using the UAS, he was able to capture more than 200 digital photos, which allowed him to document the scene in just over 20 minutes. It would have taken three to four hours to document the scene without the UAS, according to Gunderson. Thanks to being able to document the scene in such a short amount of time, the lanes were reopened and the wrecked cars were cleared in a much shorter time than usual, which saves the WSP in overtime costs. It is also helps diminish backups and accidents that are caused in unexpected slowdowns. “That’s why we invested the time, money, and effort into this program,” Gunderson says via KING5.com. “We think it’s really going to be a game changer in clearing the roadways.”