UAVs Industry Best Practice – Part I
1.5 Emergency Response and Police
A double blow of natural disasters hit Fukushima in 2011: The strongest earthquake in Japanese history followed by a tsunami which claimed the lives of more than 15,000 people and a whole region devastated. A big problem in the aftermath of natural disasters is that decision makers often lack information on which to base their decisions.
In Fukushima, this was exacerbated by radioactivity leaking from damaged reactors, putting every human being who entered the power plant area at high risk of radioactive contamination. UAVs are ideal data-gathering machines in these circumstances. They are fully independent of the potentially demolished infrastructure, equipped with cameras and sensors, and controlled remotely.
Their valuable contribution includes keeping humans out of danger zones or at least limiting their risk exposure. This is precisely what happened in Fukushima. A Honeywell T-Hawk UAV was used to collect insights from the heart of the devastated plant. The T-Hawk is powered by a two-stroke gasoline engine and is capable of staying airborne for approximately 40 minutes before it requires refueling.
Not only carrying cameras but also rescuing people is the vision of the ‘Rescue UAV’ – a special version of the ‘Volocopter’, an electrically powered multicopter. It was developed by the German start-up e-volo and originally designed to carry two people, thereby excluding it from classification as an unmanned aerial vehicle.
Researchers at Brigham Young University in Utah ran a pilot on using a UAV for search-and-rescue (SAR) missions. An operator was trained to use the system to spot lost hikers. A next step will be to develop an algorithm that can automatically detect a human being in collected footage.
While these emergency response and SAR operations are likely to be hugely popular, there may be different public opinion about police use of UAVs. According to media reports, police departments in several countries, including Australia and the USA, are planning to use UAVs or already have UAVs in service. The South Australian Minister for Police is quoted as saying:
“UAVs represent a cost-effective solution for a range of policing operations, especially in situations when using conventional aircraft is too dangerous or costly, they can be fitted with a variety of cameras, can be deployed in minutes, and can fly at heights that effectively make them inaudible from the ground.”
One example of UAV usage comes from the Australian Queensland Police Service who is utilizing at least two UAVs for law enforcement. They are deploying them for “situational awareness” during sieges and other high-risk operations. Although they have been used in trials since early 2012, the continued usage of UAVs was only recently published in a federal report on drones and privacy. But this is exactly what worries civil liberty groups and the general public. People are uneasy about the scenario of an easily deployable, unrecognizable UAV that effectively spies on everyone unnoticed.
1.6 Film and Photography
Aerial film and photography service providers are probably the heaviest commercial users of unmanned aerial systems today. The technical requirement is comparatively low – in many cases, off-the-shelf cameras are attached to the UAV with ready-made or makeshift mountings.
For a better focus and improved results, the camera and the UAV can be handled by different operators. Significant cost savings can be achieved, and this results in a shift from more expensive options to UAVs, and opens up new customer segments. Film/photo missions that would previously have used a helicopter can now be executed at a fraction of the cost.
In some instances, the UAV replaces expensive technology that is not even a flying device; for example, instead of using computer technology to create scenes, these can now be filmed by UAV. A Washington Post article lists many movies with UAV-filmed scenes, including some of the biggest blockbusters of recent years such as ‘Skyfall’, ‘The Hunger Games’ and ‘The Dark Knight Rises’.
In addition to technology shifts in established projects, new customers for aerial photography are entering the market; these customers would not have considered buying this type of service previously, because of prohibitive cost. For example, hotels and spas are now using aerial photography and video material for marketing purposes, especially on their websites.
Real estate agents can now “show homes in context to neighbors, golf courses and other nearby landmarks” – even though photographers in the USA are not yet allowed to charge for this service (FAA regulations restrict commercial use of this type of photography without permission; photographers are bypassing the law by charging only for editing). In a non-commercial application, a young French start-up has taken the ‘Instagram’ idea to the skies: On dronestagr.am, visitors can upload their UAVbased aerial photographs and videos to “create a world map of our Earth with a bird‘s eye view”.
1.7 Development Aid
“We will bring to the world its next-generation transportation system.” This immodest statement is made on the homepage of Matternet, a California-based start-up that is seed-funded by investors such as Andreessen Horowitz (with previous interests in Skype and Groupon).
The organization intends to “create a network that is designed around human need, rather than the limitations of the antiquated technology that formed our current transportation system”. The basic idea is to use UAVs to leapfrog infrastructure developments. The envisaged network includes base stations in 10 km intervals, which will allow UAVs to recharge. The network should be capable of carrying relief shipments to hard-to-reach places and allow economical connection to rural populations.