By Pete Kunz, Vice President and Chief Engineer
As the unmanned future unfolds, we have been continuously able to discover and create new ways to leverage technology for information gathering. Here at Insitu, this is driven by an innovative spirit and the foundational motivation to provide better information from places where situational awareness was previously difficult to obtain or flat-out unavailable.
Wide-area open-ocean search has historically required the use of large manned aircraft or ships equipped with radar to detect objects at sea, while small/tactical unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have been reserved for small scale or cued searches and the observation of known objects. Maintaining homeland security, ensuring safe and threat-free maritime commerce, and being the first link of success in maritime humanitarian missions are just a few of the key missions accomplished with broad area maritime surveillance. In all these scenarios, aviation resources are always precious and sometimes scarce. Efficiency matters. Recognizing this, we pursued a solution that would allow our UAS to bear the load, freeing other assets to be best applied to the problem at hand, and as a whole, to be more successful and effective in the mission at hand.
In collaboration with Hood Technology and Sentient Vision Systems, we have now developed a new technology for ScanEagle that provides greater maritime search capability called ViDAR, which stands for Video Detection and Ranging.
How it works
The challenge with just “looking around with your camera” is often called the soda straw effect. To see detail at any distance you’d need to zoom way in, only viewing a tiny swath of the larger area. It’s a big ocean! This just does not work. ViDAR autonomously sweeps the ocean’s surface in real time, identifying distinct shapes in the canvas, indicated by unique and sending location coordinates and snapshots back to the ground control station. This technology draws attention to inconsistencies in the water’s surface, such as a ship, a whale or even an oil slick. With pinpoint accuracy, an operator can then pick those of interest and take a closer look with our sharp-eyed turret, also known as “cross-cueing”.
Putting it to the test
Last fall, we flew ViDAR over the South Pacific and immediately started seeing results impossible to achieve with the “look around with your camera” approach. Small boats showed up at medium distance and large boats were identified from even further away. Once detected, our high-zoom camera was able to gather detailed imagery of these objects. At one point, we cued to a snapshot and were rewarded with images of a spouting whale over a mile away from ScanEagle. It would be nice to say we expected that, but in all honesty we were impressed. ScanEagle equipped with ViDAR is proof of the innovative spirit that continues to drive superior information delivery and better decision making around the world.
ViDAR is in the final stages of development.