A Comprehensive Breakdown of What ‘The Commercial UAV Show 2016’ Had to Offer Search and Rescue – Part 1

AN OVERVIEW OF THE TOP 5 DRONES FOR SEARCH AND RESCUE AT THE SHOW

Please note: the technical term for drones – ‘unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs)’ – will be used throughout this blog post.

For many search and rescue (SAR) professionals, the process of evaluating unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) for purchase or recommendation is a new endeavour that exposes them to a whole new set of specifications and performance parameters that they are unfamiliar with. This unfamiliarity makes them vulnerable to the vagaries of sleek marketing literature.

Several organisations are claiming to offer “search and rescue drones”, yet seem to be simply transferring a consumer or commercial UAV into the SAR market without any or very little adaptation. A SAR UAV needs to be more than just a consumer/commercial UAV with a thermal camera attached to it. For this reason, the airframes have been analysed for their SAR use separately to their payloads, which is discussed in a later section. Its SAR capabilities need to extend further than it’s payload.

There were many UAVs on display in London; only the top 5 for SAR use have been included. These are:

  • Typhoon H PRO RS (Yuneec)
  • Wingcopter (Hessen Shafft Wissen)
  • GUAV8 (Globe UAV)
  • Flydeo Y6 (Flydeo)
  • SkyRanger (Aeryon Labs)

I should state that UAV manufacturers do not endorse The SkyBound Rescuer Project blog in any way; we offer unbiased and honest information for the SAR community. Thus, the following analysis offers both the strengths and weaknesses of each of these products. Although these were deemed to be the top 5 UAVs that the show had to offer the SAR sector, none of these solutions are without weaknesses, and it is important for SAR professionals to be aware of the drawbacks to each solution in order to use them effectively.

TYPHOON H PRO RS:

typhoon-title

Cost: £4,999

Manufacturer: Yuneec

Overview: The three main features to this Hexacopter that suit the needs of a SAR end-user are: it’s portability, it’s safety features, and it’s first-person viewing (FPV) options. Given this product’s wealth of features, it is only these relevant attributes to SAR that will be discussed in more detail, although it should be noted that this model has further capabilities than these mentioned.

typhoon1

Portability: Portability is essential for SAR operations; SAR teams are always on the move and usually with very little room for storage within their mode of transport. Hence the foldable mechanism of this airframe makes it an ideal solution. This model incorporates foldable arms that can extend into its flight position by a click of a button, as well as Quick-Loc propellers that claim to be “fast on, fast off” (Yuneec, 2016).

Yuneec offer a rucksack for this UAV product, designed for ease and comfort of transportation. However, it should be noted that a hard case would provide the most protection in transit and for storage.

typhoon-bag

Notably, this product also comes with a 12V car charger, enabling the ability to charge batteries out in the field. Battery limitations for multi-rotor UAVs is a common nuisance, a remote charger may help reduce this problem for longer operations.

Safety: It can be said that the objective of all emergency services are the same; to bring help to those in need as effectively and efficiently as possible and to ensure the lives of those responding are as safe as possible. Therefore, safety has to be a major consideration within a SAR UAV’s design. Yuneec have included a variety of great safety features.

Firstly, the Typhoon H PRO RS is a redundant system – meaning the duplication of critical components within a system or the allowance of a critical component to fail due to a fail-safe system in place. The Typhoon H PRO RS, although a Hexacopter, can reliably fly with only 5 motors. This 5-motor flight redundancy feature allows the UAV to remain airborne even in the unlikely and unfortunate event of a motor failure, enhancing safety of operation.

Another attractive safety feature that this model possesses is Intel’s RealSense collision avoidance component. The quote below, extracted directly from Yuneec’s brochure, describes it perfectly:

“With its combination of specialised sensors and cameras in the RealSenseTM front facing bar, the system maps and learns its environment in 3D, recognising each obstacle, planning an alternative route and safely navigating over and around it. If RealSenseTM avoids an obstacle once, it will remember the location of the obstacle and avoid it on its return down the same flight path.” (Yuneec, 2016)

This incredible technology makes 18.1 million point calculations per second and even works in virtual darkness. The RealSense bar also maintains reliable control within poor GPS reception locations, especially useful when flying in urban environments.

Although relatively common nowadays, it should be stated that the Typhoon H PRO RS also includes automatic return-to-home (returning to the point in which it was launched) upon low battery or loss of signal. However, the Typhoon H PRO RS’ combination of both audible and tactile (vibrating) warnings that alert the operator of low battery is less common. Notably, this safety feature could have potential adverse effects by adding more pressure to a low battery landing for an operator – the vibrations could even become a distraction.

First Person Viewing (FPV): To be clear, FPV is the ability to view what the aircraft can see in real-time. This is an important requirement for SAR teams, otherwise it renders the UAV practically obsolete – the situational awareness advantages, the height of eye advantages, the search advantages…and so on, would disappear. While the Typhoon H PRO RS offers a medium sized FPV display of 7 inches (1.5 times the size of an iPhone 6’s screen), it also wields a HDMI port to attach an external monitor with a HD 1080P video downlink, i.e. you can attach a HDTV to the ground station, transforming that lost person that SAR teams are searching for from a mere pixel on a 7-inch screen to a cluster of pixels on a HDTV screen.

Also, with Yuneec’s team mode capability, one person can concentrate on flying and one can concentrate on the data it is receiving – whether it be finding the hot spot of a fire or finding a missing person in a field, and so on. Furthermore, Skyview goggles are available for this product, allowing the camera operator to fully concentrate on the live image.

Weaknesses:

  • It does not indicate it’s heading (i.e. which way it is facing), which is useful for ease of control, especially when returning the aircraft for landing.
  • When flying with a backdrop of trees, the black colour of the Typhoon H PRO RS could easily be hidden, hindering spotting and safe flying practices.
  • The Typhoon H PO RS has a short battery endurance of 22 minutes, add gusts and high wind speeds into the flight and that time will reduce even further.
  • No manufacturer’s training is available. The training provided by a CAA approved flight school towards a commercial UAV license is not aircraft specific. Each UAV is controlled differently; specific training on your UAV purchase would ease that transition for a new pilot.
  • The UAV cannot be submerged. Although the body is made from the water resistant material nylon, ingress is possible around the motors and payload gimbal. It is highly likely for a SAR UAV to be flown over or near to water; waterproofing of the system comes fully recommended.
  • Additional to the above point, in case the UAV fell into water, it not only needs to be waterproof but also retrievable. A positively buoyant system would be ideal.
  • The Typhoon H PRO RS has no navigational LED lights, meaning it would not be visible for night flights.
  • This aircraft does not indicate its purpose for SAR missions; this would help massively in public perception issues, whilst also acting as a psychological boost for struggling casualties, i.e. they’d know help was on its way.
  • The ground station comprises a variety of buttons and display data, creating a daunting amount of information overload for a first-time operator; a simplified controller would require less hours of training (i.e. less cost).

Conclusion: The lightweight, highly portable Typhoon H PRO RS is a great budgetary solution, ideal for proof of concept trials before investing into a more sophisticated model.

WINGCOPTER:

wingcopter-title

Cost: On request, depends on level of customisation and sensors

Manufacturer: Hessen Shafft Wissen

Overview: The Wingcopter is an up-and-coming solution created by students from a German University. It is a high-speed hybrid UAV, which offers great potential for SAR with its combination of multi-rotors for vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) with a fixed-wing aircraft design for fast flying and longevity of flights. This hybrid approach awards this model an impressive endurance of 2 hours flight time; an unheard of achievement for a VTOL UAV. The system even comes with 3 batteries, giving the overall product a 5-hour endurance.

The aircraft and payload are both entirely customisable; it can even be made a redundant system upon request.

The system design is modular (body, tail, 2x tilting arms, and 2x wings), meaning in the unlikely event of a collision or crash, the parts damaged can be replaced rather than the entire aircraft.

wingcopter-5-with-logo

Weaknesses:

  • No manufacturer’s training is available. The training provided by a CAA approved flight school towards a commercial UAV license is not aircraft specific. Each UAV is controlled differently; specific training on your UAV purchase would ease that transition for a new pilot.
  • The UAV cannot be submerged. It is highly likely for a SAR UAV to be flown over or near to water; waterproofing of the system comes fully recommended.
  • The Wingcopter has no navigational LED lights, meaning it would not be visible for night flights.
  • The Wingcopter does not offer ease of portability; it is a large aircraft with no viable transportation case. It needs to address the issue of storage and transportation. SAR teams need a large aircraft for visibility to casualties; yet have limited storage and space for transportation available.
  • The ground station is a standard transmitter comprising of a variety of unintuitive buttons and display data, creating a daunting amount of information overload for a first-time operator; a simplified controller would require less hours of training (i.e. less cost).
  • This aircraft does not indicate its purpose for SAR missions; this would help massively in public perception issues, whilst also acting as a psychological boost for struggling casualties, i.e. they’d know help was on its way.
  • Although a fast speed is great for reaching distant search areas, for the actual searching task – the faster the UAV, the harder it is to spot an object. This aircraft holds great potential for searching given its long endurance, however, using its maximum speed of 93mph during a search pattern would be detrimental to its searching capabilities. A key advantage to UAVs over helicopters is their ability to fly slower and closer to objects.

Conclusion: While there’s certainly room for improvement with the Wingcopter, its innovative hybrid design wields a wealth of potential. Plus, some of its weaknesses could be easily solved with simple design alterations. For example, with a wingspan of 1.78 metres, the Wingcopter is incredibly visible in the sky. If the Wingcopter conveyed its SAR purpose through its design (e.g. use of colour, lettering, etc.) then it would positively influence survival rates – knowing help is on its way has proven benefits, it acts as a psychological boost for struggling casualties. This is just the beginning for Wingcopter; I look forward to seeing how it develops into the future.

GUAV8:

guav8-title

Cost: £40,000 (including maintenance and an Opgal thermal camera)

Manufacturer: Globe UAV

Overview: The GUAV8 has many interesting attributes to offer SAR; for example, it can act as a WiFi hotspot during flight, which for disaster response could be a major communication tool. However, it was the GUAV8’s focus on usability and security that really made this product standout to me for SAR purposes.

Usability: It claims to have the “most user friendly ground station available” through offering a computer mouse, joystick, keyboard, and computer screen (all included in the cost) by means of control (Globe UAV, N/A). Through supplying a ground station in the form of ubiquitous equipment that the majority of people use on a day-to-day basis, will ease the initial steps to flying for every new pilot. Without any piloting knowledge the user is able to control the UAV, similar to a computer game. The image below shows the minimal control buttons used on a keyboard for this model.

uav8-ground-station

Also, this UAV is controlled via 4G LTE high-speed communications. Due to the mobile Internet communication between the components, the flight range of the GUAV8 is only constrained by its battery duration (45 minutes). Furthermore, this feature allows the UAV to be launched remotely, e.g. the pilot could be located in a separate country to the UAV when launching the aircraft. Although CAA regulations wouldn’t allow for this at present, it is a consideration for future progression. The quote below, taken directly from Globe UAV’s website, demonstrates the range and reliability of this function.

“In October 2015 we have established a world record. The Drone was flown at our HQ in Germany controlled from the Office in Shenzhen, China. The pilot in China watched the live stream in highest quality with a delay of only 250ms! The distance between drone and pilot was more than 9000km – so do not worry about the latency!” (Globe UAV, N/A)

guav8-2

Lastly, the GUAV8 has two bright orange arms to indicate it’s heading, which is extremely useful for spotting and ease of returning the UAV to the landing area.

Security: A continued concern for the emergency services with regards to UAVs is the question of security, how secure is the data is it collecting? How easy would it be for a member of the public to hack into and take over a Police UAV? And what fail-safe options are in place if this happens? Globe UAV have put great consideration into these questions, the quote below describes their solution.

“The main problem is, the pilot remains anonymous, even the drone is taken by officials. We have ensured that an abuse of the Globe UAV System is nearly impossible. Each drone has its unique ID that belongs to only one ground station. This ground station is only allowed to run on its delivered computer. On top of it, each LTE Drone System is registered in our database. In case of system abuse the pilot’s flight permission can withdraw at any time. Even if the drone was already in the air a takeover of control by the Administrator for safe landing is possible. We take our responsibilities seriously!” (Globe UAV, N/A)

Weaknesses:

  • No manufacturer’s training is available. The training provided by a CAA approved flight school towards a commercial UAV license is not aircraft specific. Each UAV is controlled differently; specific training on your UAV purchase would ease that transition for a new pilot.
  • The UAV cannot be submerged. It is highly likely for a SAR UAV to be flown over or near to water; waterproofing of the system comes fully recommended.
  • Additional to the above point, in case the UAV fell into water, it not only needs to be waterproof but also retrievable. A positively buoyant system would be ideal.
  • This aircraft does not indicate its purpose for SAR missions; this would help massively in public perception issues, whilst also acting as a psychological boost for struggling casualties, i.e. they’d know help was on its way.
  • Although GUAV8’s plan for these systems is to have them stored at a permanent location and launched remotely, this is not currently legal. Therefore, very little focus has been given to the portability of this UAV, which is an important factor for present day operations.
  • This is not a redundant system; if a motor fails then it will fall with no parachute fail-safe to slow down its descent.

Conclusion: Globe UAV has targeted some key concerns with their GUAV8, producing some viable and intriguing solutions. Once CAA regulations allow for beyond visual line of sight operations, GUAV8’s strengths will really come into play.

FLYDEO Y6:

y6-title

Cost: €12,000 (£10,677.42)

Manufacturer: Flydeo

Overview: Flydeo’s focus on fail-safe options, portability of a large system, and customisation of the payload, make the Flydeo Y6 a SAR UAV competitor.

Fail-safe: Flydeo have clearly given a lot of attention to system redundancy for enhanced safety with the Y6. Not only does it constantly monitor for motor failures to pre-empt these faults, but it also has an integrated rescue parachute system that can be deployed automatically or manually. As already mentioned above, safety is an important subject for response staff.

Additionally, Flydeo are looking to imminently offer a hybrid version (both battery and fuel powered) of the Y6. Not only will this version offer a vast improvement on endurance (70 minutes to 4 hours), it will also include battery redundancy, allowing the system to land using just its fuel power in case of battery failure; given the system duplicated redundancy.

Portability: The Flydeo Y6 is a large system with an in-flight diameter of 2 metres, making it highly visible for spotting and for casualties to be alerted that help is near. The downfall of most large systems is their lack of transportation and storage considerations. However, Flydeo did not neglect these constrictions with their design. The Y6 has 2 out of 3 foldable arms, making its storage size a mere 600 x 900 x 600 mm. Moreover, this product includes a portable hard case to further improve its level of portability.

y6-3

Payload: Most UAV manufacturers fall into the trap of classing SAR as one entity, rather than a variety of fields with varying needs. Despite popular belief, a thermal camera will not solve all SAR problems. Thus, the customisation of the Y6’s payload gives the flexibility for teams to attach whichever solution they require.

flydeo3

Weaknesses:

  • No manufacturer’s training is available. The training provided by a CAA approved flight school towards a commercial UAV license is not aircraft specific. Each UAV is controlled differently; specific training on your UAV purchase would ease that transition for a new pilot.
  • The UAV cannot be submerged. It is highly likely for a SAR UAV to be flown over or near to water; waterproofing of the system comes fully recommended.
  • Additional to the above point, in case the UAV fell into water, it not only needs to be waterproof but also retrievable. A positively buoyant system would be ideal.
  • This aircraft does not indicate its purpose for SAR missions; this would help massively in public perception issues, whilst also acting as a psychological boost for struggling casualties, i.e. they’d know help was on its way.
  • The ground station is a standard transmitter comprising of a variety of unintuitive buttons and display data, creating a daunting amount of information overload for a first-time operator; a simplified controller would require less hours of training (i.e. less cost).
  • The ground station also has a relatively small display, making it difficult to gather situational awareness and for detection of objects.
  • The Flydeo Y6 has no navigational LED lights, meaning it would not be visible for night flights.
  • The Flydeo Y6 has a relatively lengthy set up, requiring 2 screws per foldable arm (4 screws in total) in order to lock into its in-flight position. Although – notably – it has a fast 13 mph ascending speed, which would go towards making up for lost time.
  • Although the customisation of the payload has been highlighted as a strength, it is also necessary to indicate that sometimes an integrated solution is easier for control reasons. The cross compatibility of an integrated payload allows all control to be carried out via one transmitter.
  • An important weakness of this model is its weight (9kg). Special permission from the CAA is required to fly an aerial vehicle over 7kg. This adds more time and cost in order to proceed with the operation of the Y6; hence building barriers to integration of this system.

Conclusion: Although this UAV shows great potential in SAR operations with its large size, power, portability, and customisation; its weight is a relatively significant hindrance. While an endurance of 70 minutes is extremely impressive for a UAV of this size and power, perhaps a viable weight compromise would be to integrate a smaller battery for a slightly shorter flight time to bring its weight down to that critical 7kg weight limit. However, this could potentially be a key motivation behind their hybrid efforts, we shall see.

SKYRANGER:

skyranger-title

Cost: £45,000 (including SkyRanger, 2x days of training, ground station, 12-month warrantee, 30x optical zoom payload) or £55,000 (including SkyRanger, 2x days of training, ground station, 12-month warrantee, SR-EO/IR Mk2 payload)

Manufacturer: Aeryon Labs

Overview: Aeryon have dedicated such thorough attention to the SAR sector that an entire brochure was available at the show for this specific customer group, which was really fantastic to see. Not only this, but their assiduity towards SAR was overwhelmingly evident throughout their impressive UAV product. The aforementioned brochure included the below quote from an esteemed SAR professional, which supports my awe of this system for SAR purposes.

“To date, the Aeryon SkyRanger has delivered exceptional results, which is as much a testament to pilot skill as to system efficiency. For GMFRS, using the Air Unit (aka SkyRanger) when responding to fire incidents and other emergencies gives us the detailed information we need onsite and validate our choice in technology.”

– Chris Rainford, Watch Commander, Greater Manchester Fire and Rescue Services (GMFRS) (Aeryon Labs Inc., 2016)

This product has an extensive list of capabilities useful to SAR, because of this The SkyBound Rescuer Project look to dedicate a separate product review post at a later date. Whereas, this post will include its very best SAR features: its usability, weather considerations, portability and the training available.

skyranger-1

Usability: The SkyRanger can be deployed within minutes and offers ease of use throughout operation. It incorporates several automated features that benefit a SAR customer. For example, it has a launch setting to aid with boat launches whereby the UAV can sense when the boat is level and then automatically takes-off at that moment; making boat launches in high sea state considerably more feasible. There’s also a launch setting that takes the UAV up to 1 or 3 metres within 1.5 seconds in order for the UAV to fulfil its GPS calibration task. Calibration is a requirement for all UAVs with GPS, however this task is usually done by hand before launching, and can sometimes take several attempts before successful calibration is achieved. The automation of this launch task makes for easier and quicker launches. Moreover, GPS calibration is usually unsuccessful on boats due to high levels of electromagnetic interference, which then forces the operator to hold the UAV above their head (i.e. moving the UAV away from the interference caused by the metals and radios on the boat) for the calibration techniques followed by launching precariously from someone’s hands – certainly not ideal in terms of safety. The SkyRanger’s method of flying itself to 3 metres before carrying out its calibration, avoids this breach in safety. Additionally, the SkyRanger possesses specific software to counteract electromagnetic interference, not only is that useful for calibrating the GPS but also for flying within close proximity to structures.

Aeryon have also created a simplistic tablet ground station for intuitive point-and-click touchscreen control. A scribe for the touchscreen tablet is provided, but a joystick version can be supplied. It weighs under 1kg, has just one button on the side, an endurance of 4.5 hours (5.4 flights), and an SD card that saves all individual flight data. The SD card recognises which operator is flying. Thus, the SkyRanger could be shared across teams and providing each team has their own SD card, team data can be stored separately to avoid confusion.

Weather Capabilities: The SkyRanger can be used in a wide spectrum of weather conditions, with a wind tolerance of 40mph, a resistance to heavy rain and an operational temperature range of -30oC to 50oC. This UAV should be capable of flight for the majority of your incidents. Not only this, the ground station is also splash proof and resistant to 100% humidity. Furthermore, the manufacturer choice of STORM for the portable hard case elicits the utmost resilience to extreme weather conditions.

Portability: Not only does the SkyRanger weigh less than 3kg, but by simply pulling 4 levers, the legs click into its folded position (see below) to be safely stored in its marine tested, thoroughly robust and portable hard case for storage or transportation.

skyranger2

Training: Aeryon offers a 2-day training course for 5 team members per system – which can be extended to 10 under special circumstances. Even an intuitive device such as an iPhone could seem complicated to an Android user; however, with minimal guidance it can become second nature in a short period of time due to the simplicity of its interface. The same can be said for UAVs. A UAV design could be the simplest system on the market, but to a novice operator, it could still seem overwhelmingly complicated without guidance. The SkyRanger’s training course is an excellent way to circumvent usability concerns.

Weaknesses:

  • The UAV cannot be submerged. It is highly likely for a SAR UAV to be flown over or near to water; waterproofing of the system comes fully recommended.
  • Additional to the above point, in case the UAV fell into water, it not only needs to be waterproof but also retrievable. A positively buoyant system would be ideal.
  • This aircraft does not indicate its purpose for SAR missions; this would help massively in public perception issues, whilst also acting as a psychological boost for struggling casualties, i.e. they’d know help was on its way.
  • It has a relatively slow ascent speed, meaning it takes just over 2 minutes to reach its maximum altitude (400ft for legal reasons). A quick acquisition of situational awareness from considerable height may be required for some SAR practices.
  • Its grey colour may not standout well in the sky, making spotting difficult and preventing casualties from realising help is close.

Conclusion: Aeryon offers an outstanding solution for SAR operations. There are still areas of weakness and room for improvement for the sophisticated airframe, but their special attention to the needs of the emergency services are resoundingly obvious. It is a perfect example of what a research-lead approach can achieve.

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If you have anything to add or questions to ask or recommendations for future research blog posts, please don’t hesitate to use the comment section below. AND don’t forget to email subscribe, so you’re always up-to-date with the world of SAR UAVs!

REFERENCES:

All references are located on the Introduction page.

IMAGE SOURCES:

All image sources are located on the Introduction page.

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