Patrick Macke 

There is nothing in the world that affects everyone near equally than weather.

With this in mind, all the talk of the town here in Atlanta is the winter snow storm that has brought traffic to a standstill, caused hundreds (if not thousands) of accidents and otherwise paralyzed commerce in the metropolitan area.

Pictures and videos on of the ‘good morning’ shows here in Atlanta depict scenes reminiscent of the Walking Dead, which ironically is originally set AND filmed in the city. So how can RPA systems assist local authorities in the consequence management of such problems?

First, it is important to identify the requirement and who the customer would be. In this case, Atlanta City, Police, DOT and County officials would be the customer, ostensibly centered in some type of metro-area encompassing emergency operations center (EOC). The EOC is the nerve center where information must flow to decision makers in order to best organize and assign taskings to the resources they have. Some of their awareness gaps might include:

  • What is the current status of moving traffic on the 285 Beltway?
  • How far out is traffic not moving on interstates feeding the beltway, and what is the status of those intersections?
  • Which areas of the interstate allow enough freedom of movement to conduct recovery/wrecker/de-icing operations?
  • Which areas of interstate roads have the highest concentration of abandoned or otherwise non-moving vehicles?
  • Which county/state roads are moving quickly enough to be used as arteries or detour routes?
  • Identify yellow school busses not in motion or otherwise stranded.
  • Identify any vehicles protruding smoke or indications of a fire.

You get the idea, and it’s no different than any other emergency response or military operation. Decision makers need the latest information at their fingertips to best respond. And a persistent, full motion video (FMV) UAV System would be the perfect solution to meet these awareness gaps.

Imagine a wide-angle, full motion video sensor mounted to a 20hr endurance UAV broadcasting HD video directly to the EOC (and a web login for other customers). This would be the perfect solution, only it can’t happen at this time due to airspace restrictions, cost, availability, etc.. But there are other solutions that could help as well.

Bridge/traffic cams only show you an angle of a single area and manned helicopters are both limited by range and cost. UAV Quadcopters, at this point, are nowhere close to and likely will never meet a requirement for persistence. They simply require/expend too much energy to operate relative to the amount it can lift. Fixed wing FMV is the answer, like Insitu’s Scan Eagle (which is type-approved by the FAA).

Unfortunately these and other platforms which would meet the requirement are beset with problems. To be able to send signal to the EOC the platform would have to have a robust power source and ability to have a higher payload capability, which in 2014 is only reliably found in military hardware. Airspace is another issue, as UAVs cannot fly without FAA approval – and not to mention Atlanta-Hartsfield is the busiest airport in the world. And lastly, these types of platforms aren’t cheap –several hundred thousand dollars to procure, maintain and operate.

So where does this leave us in the UAV industry? The requirement for real time, persistent awareness isn’t going away. At the moment there is a mixed bag of sensors and platforms that can meet some of the requirement, but there would always be a trade off: sensor resolution or data link tether, endurance or capability, etc.. With so much focus on UAVs for Agriculture and commerce it is difficult to predict when a UAV system meeting these requirements would be built for civilian/commercial use, but make no mistake, there is a market for it.

Patrick Macke is Director of Flight Operations at VSG-Unmanned, a UAV Startup in Atlanta. He has conducted UAV operations and imagery collection management for the 2010 BP Oil Spill, annual Flooding in the Northern Plains and Operation Enduring Freedom. 

By Press