Sarah Dasher For the Santa Cruz Valley Sun
In the back corner of an engineering building at the University of Arizona, Professor Sergey Shkarayev and his students study the mechanics of flight. At 9 p.m. on a Thursday, students are still gathered there, surrounded by circuit boards, batteries, disembodied wings. The lab even looks like a small airplane hangar-vast but windowless. This lab has earned a national reputation for constructing and flying remote control planes.
Increasingly, military and civilian customers are looking closely at remote control aircraft as alternatives to traditional surveillance methods. Predator drones already roam the skies over the Arizona-Mexico border. Although it is unmanned, the Predator is still a large and expensive aircraft, with a wingspan of nearly 50 feet and a unit cost of around $4.5 million, according to Department of Homeland Security (DHS) estimates. Operating costs for the Predator are more than $3,000 per hour. (Lots more sUAS News)
Smaller, toy-sized planes-or micro air vehicles (MAVs)-might be cheap and versatile replacements for some of the tasks currently performed by the Predator. None of the planes in the Shkarayev MAV lab would cost more than $2,000 to manufacture.
Naturally, then, Shkarayev’s work has attracted the attention (and funding) of the Department of Homeland Security and the Air Force Office of Scientific Research (AFOSR). One of the AFOSR projects involves installing gas sensors on MAVs, which can detect hazardous fumes from the air before they threaten troops on the ground. Shkarayev engineers designed a plane to carry the gas sensors as payload, and then fly over and locate gas clouds.
Many of their projects reflect the difficulty of doing surveillance in rugged terrain. In a current DHS collaboration with the Milpitas, Calif.-based company Intelesense Technologies, the Shkarayev lab is developing a plane that can relay data between ground units and radio towers. This could be a crucial communication tool in places where mountains and canyons obscure line-of-sight communications, such as Afghanistan or the Arizona borderland.
In a March 2011 field test of this project, a Shkarayev plane was launched over the Tucson desert with a payload of radio transmitters. Soldiers on the ground wore monitors that transmitted their heart rates to the MAVs flying overhead. The MAVs successfully relayed data from the heart rate monitors on the ground to a radio tower on top of Tanque Verde Peak, 8 miles away.
“If we’re in a canyon, for example, it can be very hard to get a signal out, even with a satellite phone,” Shkarayev said. “We showed that the unmanned aerial vehicle, flying at 1,000 feet, could pick up that signal and transmit it to the very powerful antenna on top of [a mountain].”
“We achieved up to 75 percent signal quality at 6 miles … meaning that we could have gone much, much farther … 40-plus miles?” said Kevin Montgomery, the president of Intelesense.
A subsequent test in Utah’s canyonlands in fall 2011 confirmed the MAVs’ viability as a data relay. “They can be used to transmit video, high-bandwidth stuff, anything,” Shkarayev said. And even, with biometric monitors, to locate downed soldiers from 1,000 feet in the air.