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UAV of the same model as the evaluation version in flight. A 4kg payload including P25 digital payload was tested over southern NSW in late 2015.

Use of unmanned aerial vehicles for emergency communications

Communications during an emergency response are of paramount importance for safety of responders and efficient execution of emergency plans.

However communications are highly likely to be compromised during an emergency;

  • an extreme weather event, such as the Hunter Region floods on 2015 may impact communications infrastructure;
  • terrain may combine with inadequate infrastructure in the area of interest to prevent direct communications with responders, such as remote area bush-fires, Search-And-Rescue operations or manhunts; and
  • the event itself may generate so much traffic that existing systems cannot cope with the deluge of demand for service.

All of these situations have occurred in recent times within Australia or overseas, so this is not a theoretical exercise, but one which needs planning for.

In any of these instances extra capacity needs to be injected into the communications system to relieve congestion and alleviate black spots in coverage. Portable and mobile repeaters are the usual, and very effective, method of providing such coverage.

However there may be issues with getting resources onto the ground in the required positions within the desired time-frames. In times of extensive flooding there may be no way to get into the area at all; similarly mountainous terrain, particularly if cut off by fire, may prevent access by technical communications teams. Powering a site may be an issue of concern if fuel or batteries must be dropped in to numerous sites providing coverage to an area. Urban in-fill may be required but a situation exists whereby assets need to be physically segregated from on-ground activities, such as during civil disturbance or a mass casualty event.

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In these instances, and others, an aerial platform for radio communications is a viable answer. Able to be inserted to the required area from a remote location, and to loiter in the area for hours at a time, an aircraft can provide the required infill yet be ready to move on to another location easily, without putting further responders or support teams into possible jeopardy.

There now exist Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV’s) with the capacity to engage in flights of twelve to twenty hours in duration, loitering under autopilot control over an area of interest. Not only can they provide surveillance capability but additional payloads such as digital radio repeaters can be placed on board a suitable aircraft. With on-board power generation to provide payload power, battery size and weight is minimised so as to maximise the available flight durations.

Not only are there UAV’s now capable of operating with high-power radio payloads, but they are available with the ability to have the mission capability changed rapidly; detachable and interchangeable payload carriers mean that a swap of payload is easily performed in the field if required to support a modified mission. Daytime radio support for a remote fire scene could be changed to night-time Infra-Red surveillance when water-bombing is not operating, for example.

CAD representation of high-resolution gimbal operated camera fitted to the same UAV platform’s payload area. Flexibility of mission may be a key advantage of low-cost unmanned missions over more expensive manned operations.

CAD representation of high-resolution gimbal operated camera fitted to the same UAV platform’s payload area. Flexibility of mission may be a key advantage of low-cost unmanned missions over more expensive manned operations.

Recent trials in southern New South Wales successfully tested a VHF P25 digital repeater for almost an hour on an evaluation UAV platform. With the UAV at only 400 feet altitude, ranges for hand-held and mobile radios were extended well beyond the terrestrial line-of-sight and over terrain obstacles, exactly as expected. Working with CASA (Civil Aviation Safety Authority) it would be possible to extend the test flights into altitudes up to 1,000 feet or more, at which height a range of over 70km could be expected, now limited only by the mobile radios’ capabilities.

Communications payloads providing digital services such as IP mesh capability at high bandwidths are also possible and being tested, extending capabilities beyond mere voice and into full IP streaming for video and large data volumes. Multi-payload capabilities in a UAV also would allow rapid deployment of varying payloads to meet changing requirements.

The use of UAV’s opens the possibility of rapid-deployment of infill, emergency communications in a hands-off manner which will provide security of communications combined with safety of personnel. UAV’s capable of easy change of payload enhance the ability to respond in a rapidly changing emergency environment.

For more information, go to www.silvertone.com.au

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Ken Taylor has been involved in the electronics and radio-communications industries for almost forty years. He has been involved in projects with CSIRO’s radio-astronomy programs and the Bureau of Meteorology’s radar and satellite engineering divisions. He was responsible for the upgrading and modernisation of satellite and radio communications infrastructure for numerous Pacific Island nations and for the UK and New Zealand governments in the Pacific. Ken is currently owner of Australian UAV Technologies Pty. Ltd. (Silvertone Electronics) and is working on autopilot systems and communications and LIDAR payloads for UAV’s. Ken is a member of the Institute of Engineering Technologists and the Institute of Electrical and Electronic Engineers.