Drones Go Civilian
Drones have an image problem: Very few have positive associations with the flying objects. Most people immediately think of surveillance and drone strikes with deadly consequences. Used responsibly though, drones are uniquely suited for civil applications from locating landmines in Bosnia to mapping historical sites in Peru. Read More
Bosnia-Herzegovina, 2020. People in muddy protective clothing slowly move over the ground in the Dinaric Alps west of Sarajevo. A scratchy voice from the headphones under their big helmets gives orders. In their armored gloves they hold long metal sticks. Every step is a risk; the ground is full of landmines. Up in the sky above their heads, a drone circles on its rounds.
Is this a future Yugoslavian war? No, quite the contrary. The metal sticks are mine detectors and the people in the protective clothing are a mine disposal squad. The drone on the sky has no missiles, but rather sensors that screen the ground. When it lands you can see how small it actually is, just 1.5 meters long and weighing less than 2 kilograms. It looks like a model airplane, but it is not made for fun on sunny Sunday afternoons. Its developers, the Catalan company CATUAV, named it MINEOS as it is supposed to detect land mines in the ground. In February 2015, MINEOS was one of the 20 finalists at the Drones for Good Award in Dubai. Drones for good?
Why do we need drones?
“In the beginning the word ‘drone’ had very bad connotations,” says Marc Beltran, aerospace engineer at CATUAV. “I remember that two, three years ago, when I told people I work with drones they thought: ‘Qué Cabron! He works with the military’. But I believe this is comparable to the digital revolution. At first people asked themselves: Why do I need a computer? And today people ask themselves: Why do we need drones? There is so much potential in drones we can’t even imagine yet!”
Until now drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) as they are official called, have mainly been used for military purposes. But lately more and more companies like CATUAV have sprung up that specialize in civil drones. CATUAV started developing agricultural drones 12 years ago. These drones screen fields, detecting spots that need to be irrigated or fertilized. This means farmers do not have to work the entire field anymore.
Then the company joined the SADA Program (Space Assets for Demining Assistance) from the European Space Agency in Bosnia Herzegovina. CATUAV modified the application of their agricultural drone and created MINEOS.
Until now detecting landmines has been a long, drawn-out process. In Bosnia, for example, where there are no updated maps, the mine disposal squad screens the ground with their metal detectors, meter by meter. They also use dogs or big rats to sniff out the TNT in the landmines. According to the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre, the area suspected of containing landmines covers around 1,217.50 square kilometers, or 2.4 percent of the total country. Now imagine how much time it will take before this area is mine-free and ready to be used again. And here comes MINEOS.
The Catalan engineers have been to Bosnia twice to test the MINEOS technology. When the drone flies about 100 meters above the ground, its three sensors record different types of images. The first sensor is a photo camera that takes high definition images of the area. Each pixel is tagged with GPS coordinates during post-processing. The mines are a different temperature from the soil, so the second sensor is a thermal camera that captures this. The third sensor, the hyperspectral camera, helps analyze the spectral band sent out by the mines.
During post-processing back on the ground, all images from the three sensors are evaluated, assembled, and used to create a map. If enough evidence is collected for the existence of a mine in a certain spot, deminers can be sent out with an exact directive of where to find the mine.
While many drones today look like helicopters, the Catalan engineers designed MINEOS in the shape of an airplane. This means the drone can stay up in the air for longer. With a velocity of up to 75 km/h, it can fly for almost 1.5 hours and cover 300 hectares with its cameras. Now compare this with the area a deminer climbing up the Dinaric Mountains with his metal stick and rat can examine in one and a half hours…
Using MINEOS will make demining much faster and more efficient. But it still needs some work before it is ready to go. “It is a big responsibility to send a deminer into the field; the location of the mine has to be very exact “, Marc says. The more images MINEOS can provide, the more precise the map created during post-processing will be. Furthermore, MINEOS need to become more automated before demining agencies are able to use it. “We plan to use satellite data to help keep the drone from colliding with other flying objects. Additionally, it needs to learn how to land by itself so ultimately anybody could fly it. “
If anyone can fly a drone, isn’t this the democratization of aerospace technology? Today you can already buy a drone off the internet for 300 dollars. A bright mind could just invent its own technology and create a new application for a drone. Why do we still need aerospace engineers like Marc? “A drone is not a toy. Imagine this kid flies a drone with eight rotors over a demonstration because he wants to shoot some pictures with his GoPro, and suddenly he loses control and the drone crashes into the crowd,” Marc replies.
This is why the Spanish government passed a new law in July 2014 that regulates the operation of UAVs in Spain: Drones need to be certified, pilots are required to have a license, and the area in which drones can operate remains very limited. The European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) plans to propose new drone regulations in December 2015. In this new regulatory approach, EASA divides drone operations into three categories: open, specific and certified. Regulative requirements will apply in accordance with the proportional risk scale of the drone operation.
Drones for civil use
Does this mean we will not see the sky full of drones in the near future as some have predicted? “There will be a lot more drones”, Marc says, “probably not for private use, but civil drones.” Today civil drones are already being used in many areas. Archaeologists employ drones to map historical sites in Peru, NASA has developed a drone that helps detect wildfires, a drone delivers drugs to a pharmacy on a remote island in the German North Sea, and Amazon is currently conducting test flights for its drone-based delivery service.
But there is also a lot of potential for the criminal mind. If all you have to do is type in GPS data and press a button to commit a crime, the gangsters of tomorrow will probably sit around sipping a chai latte, working on their electrical models, helping their kids with homework, or selling organic food at the corner store on your street while trafficking drugs, carrying out contract killings, conducting “drone-suicide attacks” etc. Marc smiles: “Yes, that could happen. If you are looking for a promising future career, go for the Drone Police. I am very sure we will see it soon.“
Let’s return to the scene in Bosnia. MINEOS is flying over the Dinaric Alps, operated from a little trailer on the ground, where experts from the Bosnia and Herzegovina Mine Action Centre evaluate the images from its three sensors. Suddenly two other drones show up. The have red lights on them and are sending out signals that make MINEOS slow down. The two drones are now close; they fly around MINEOS, screening it in the air with their sensors. They vibrate a little as they are heavily armed, ready to shoot any bad drone right out of the sky. Their bodies bear the letters “EDP” for “European Drone Police”. After a while, the red lights turn green, the two police drones send a signal back to the command center on the ground: “It is clean.” Then they take off. MINEOS can continue working. Does this still sound like science fiction? Well, as you just heard, there is a great deal of room for imagination here.