Good old Kiwi ingenuity on a shoe-string budget could see the world’s first unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) for long-range search and rescue operational within the next two years.
The Coastguard has been working with Christchurch-based Global Aerial Platforms (GAP) for three years on two UAVs that could help save the lives of more people lost at sea. The smaller UAV can be launched off a boat and relays information back to Coastguard staff on where any survivors are in the water and also a better view of what’s under the water.
The larger UAV, named Toroa after the Maori word for albatross, will be used to drop off emergency supplies to survivors, such as life rafts, and to send back information via sensors from a much longer range offshore. It can fly up to 10 hours at a time and up to 200 nautical miles offshore in weather conditions too severe for more conventional craft.
“That’s quite a leap over other UAVs,” said Coastguard spokesman Gordon Mckay.
Following recent successful trial flights of the two prototype UAVS in Canterbury, Mckay hopes to have the smaller model operational within a year and the larger 60 kilogram one within two years pending new Civil Aviation regulations on flying into commercial airspace and beyond the operator’s line-of–sight.
The Coastguard UAVs have also reached the semifinals in a United Arab Emirates Drones for Good competition offering a Dh$1 million (NZ$340,000) prize to international entrants for drones providing valued-added services to improve human life.
The volunteer-run charity holds the intellectual property rights for the communications system within the drones while GAP has the IP for the composite frames supporting them.
GAP co-owner Graham Tully said his company has fronted about $360,000 in development costs so far and is now seeking angel investors to fund completing commercial models of three variants of the UAVs which are currently under construction. The company wants to raise between $250,000 to $750,000 to get the models to the point where they can be commercialised for search and rescue here and overseas.
UAVs made by Raglan-based Aeronavics Ltd are one of only two systems granted US Federal Aviation Authority exemption to be used for film and television work in Hollywood.
The exemptions, covering six media and film companies, were a milestone in broadening the currently limited legal use of commercial drones in the US.
And in another major breakthrough for the local UAV industry, the University of Canterbury has been the first in the country to be given Civil Aviation Authority permission for two test zones for flying drones out of the pilot’s line of sight.
Aeronavics director Linda Bulk, who co-owns the four-year-old company with husband Rob Brouwer, said publicity over the FAA decision had sparked demand for its SkyJib 8 engine craft.
“We’ve had an influx of inquiries and there’s a lot of potential revenue but we are now really stretched. Everything requires energy and investment. The interest is far beyond what the company can digest,” she said.
That’s prompted them to launch a $700,000 capital raising from private investors to rapidly expand the business.
The company was originally started in Australia before the couple moved to New Zealand where they now have 10 staff. It started out producing multi-rotor airframes now used worldwide for aerial photography, film-making, and agricultural and industrial applications and later expanded to become a one-stop-shop, selling ready-to-use UAVs as well as the airframes.
Aeronavics is one of a number of New Zealand businesses at the forefront of developing UAVs, which are also known as drones or remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAs).
Their use has taken off in New Zealand and beyond but that is causing growing concern about public safety and privacy issues. The CAA will release new interim regulations in March that better accommodate use of the new technology while still ensuring safety is paramount.
Commercial uses here include mapping and auditing kiwifruit orchards, farm mapping and pasture measurement, and monitoring electricity lines and infrastructure. To help the local industry capitalise on world demand, Callaghan Innovation has established an industry association, UAVNZ, is preparing an economic case study, and has organised the industry’s first ever symposium and trade show in the Wairarapa next January.
Aviation programme manager Chris Thomson said the industry cluster of around 100 organisations wanted to differentiate themselves from cowboy operators.
“They wanted a combined voice on the market opportunity rather than a fractured one. There are a lot of small players and they wanted more horse power in negotiations,” he said.
Shaun Mitchell, co-founder of Napier-based Altus Solutions which provides UAVs to capture aerial images in virtually any field, said the biggest advantage of the industry cluster was encouraging collaboration so local companies make the most of the export opportunity. Recent market research has forecast the economic impact of UAV technology, in the US alone, to be $82 billion by 2025.
There’s nothing stopping anyone buying a UAV and two years ago one crashed into an Auckland building. Mitchell said the low cost of UAVS and easy accessibility had meant some “rogue operators” were breaking aviation rules, mostly out of ignorance.
No country has yet developed a workable regulatory framework though the international civil aviation body is due to release new guidelines for drone use in March. Airways Corporation has set up a website www.airshare.co.nz to provide tips for novice aviators and the CAA is considering a Google pop-up providing regulatory advice when someone searches about UAVs.
Drones weighing under 25 kgs fall under the rules for model aircraft and can be flown in most places under a certain height, four kilometres away from airfields, and within line of sight of the pilot.
CAA general manager of general aviation Steve Moore said the new interim guidelines aim to ensure public safety while still being flexible enough to incorporate new technology yet to be developed and allow the industry to exploit the significant export opportunity.
“Under this first phase the part 102 rule will accommodate all current UAV operations into the CAA system. The long-term game is to integrate UAVs so unmanned aircraft will share airspace with manned aircraft,” Moore said. “A commercial aircraft on its final approach to Wellington airport, the next one coming down is an unmanned aircraft, and people watching are not going to know the second aircraft was remotely piloted – that’s where we’re going.”
The University of Canterbury’s authority allows it to test long-distance use of UAVs without endangering other airspace users. The nation’s remoteness, geography and sparse population makes New Zealand an ideal testing ground.
Fred Samandari, director of the university’s Wireless Research Centre, said the plan is to have products ready to go to market once aviation regulations change and legalise flying out of the pilot’s line of sight. This rests on the unmanned aircraft having sense and avoid technology that means they would deviate from their pre-programmed flight path instead of hitting something in their way, Moore said.
“These UAVS may be one or two inches up to as large as major aircraft – all of these things will be possible in the future, “ Samandri said. “We’re dealing with things that are part of our daily routine whereas 20 to 30 years ago they would have been in sci-fi movies. We’re now working on the next 20 to 30 years and what can be done safely.”