New Zealand is leading the way with UAV / Drone research. UAV stands for Unmanned Aerial Vehicle. I sat down last week with Kelvin Barnsdale, Senior Research Engineer at the University of Canterbury's Spatial Engineering Research Centre (SERC), and we discussed his Drone research.
Christchurch has the only Drone / UAV research test facility in New Zealand. SERC operates a 100sq km UAV test range at Kaitorete Spit in Canterbury, New Zealand. This is designated as a Restricted Area by the Civil Aviation Authority, and can exclude all other aircraft when activated. It has a maximum ceiling of 1000 feet. The range is situated 30km from Christchurch, and incorporates a variety of terrain, including flat coastal plain, agricultural land, dunes, extensive sea areas and coastal cliffs.
The team undertakes research and development in four key ares:
Positioning and Orientation
Image Analysis and Visualisation
Electronics and Signal Analysis
Aerial Mapping Systems
Kelvin's team are wanting to create uses for drones that will help humanity. They don't want to replace pilots jobs. Their mission is to create drones that can go places where humans, planes, helicopters can't go.
For example, sampling volcanoes, missions to the ice from ships in Antarctica, fire fighting and identifying hot spots, search and rescue. To be able to create a drone that could fly up a mountain cliff face and airlift an injured climber would be amazing.
The Antarctica mission is high on his teams list and the current roadblocks are operational limitations due to the low weather temperature, meaning the propellers and wings could ice up. With planes, they use deicing fluid to remove ice and snow from the wings. Kelvin wants to make his drones "iceophobic" using new technology.
Kelvin said the the Holy Grail for drone technology is to "Fly beyond the line of sight" which is currently a restriction enforced by the CAA & FAA.
Kelvin and I chatted about other ideas and uses for drones but what really impressed me is that he doesn't want to replace jobs with this technology. In fact as we talked, he came up with a new job title called "UAV engineer". This role will be a mix of a mechanical and an electrical engineer. Their job will be to install and maintain sensors on the UAV, and tune and maintain the engine.
I think back to my first experience with a drone and that was in 2010. A friend of mine had just flown back from Apple HQ in Cupertino, U.S and he bought a recreational drone. He used an app on his iPad to fly the drone around my office car park, shooting video. Though the image quality wasn't great, you could see the potential.
Now drones are used by most of the top photographers especially in the real estate sector.
Of course this technology has been available and without line of site restrictions to the U.S. military for a number of years. They already operate a large number of unmanned aerial systems. For example, the MQ-1 Predator UAVs armed with Hellfire missiles have been used by the U.S. as platforms for hitting ground targets.
It would be great to see drone technology research and innovations given to other government utility services which don't receive the same sort of funding as the military. Fire, Ambulance and Police services could really benefit from this sort of tech to help protect us domestically.
Keep an eye on Kelvin and his research team. They are doing some great things and he hinted that a large California company are currently using their facility and will release their product around June.