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Aerial surveillance technology could keep soldiers safer

Issue date:
02 March 2010
Press release 
Reaper MQ-9 UAV

A Reaper MQ-9 UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) prepares for a training mission.

New technology that enables aerial vehicles to plan and verify missions could mean there is less need for military personnel to conduct dangerous surveillance operations in war zones.

Developed for use in multiple unmanned aerial vehicles (MUAVs), the sophisticated autonomous computer framework - the first of its kind - allows one operator to control a number of vehicles from a safe position on the ground. It would also make surveillance missions significantly cheaper.

The EPSRC (Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council) research project has been developed by scientists from Cranfield University, based at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom. They are collaborating with a research team at Imperial College London.

UAVs are used regularly in defence scenarios, but having a team of vehicles means more “eyes”, safer missions and more accurate results. It also means that if one vehicle is lost in action the others can carry on until the mission is complete. Launching a fleet of vehicles in crowded or dangerous skies, however, requires very sophisticated control and guaranteed performance of the vehicles.

The framework technology allows an operator to programme a mission objective, authorising the group of vehicles to decide the most efficient way to complete their task. Through a series of control algorithms the framework manages each vehicle’s functions, such as navigation, guidance, path planning and decision making, and ensures the vehicles avoid colliding with one another or other objects.

A pilot from 39 Sqadron
A pilot from 39 Squadron RAF remotely controls a Reaper MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).

Principal researcher Professor Antonios Tsourdos explains the importance of the framework’s accuracy: “We have to be absolutely certain of the behaviour of the UAVs if they are operating over civilian areas or in a battle situation.”

Other benefits of using the framework technology with MUAVs are that it increases the chances of a mission being conducted safely and successfully. “Missions sometimes have to be abandoned due to poor weather or on safety grounds, but pilotless vehicles can be used in more challenging situations and can also provide real-time feedback on current conditions,” says Professor Tsourdos.

MUAVs using this framework technology can also be used by search and rescue services to look for lost people or vessels. It allows searches to be conducted without the loss of attention to detail or tiredness that occurs when humans work in challenging situations for extended periods.

MUAV framework
An illustration of the sense and avoid (collision avoidance) system for cooperative Multiple Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MUAVs) in a complex environment.

Another novel use of the technology is within environmental surveillance. The team has modelled the MUAVs with chemical sensors attached to track the movements of contaminated cloud formations. The vehicles were able to successfully track a cloud and predict its movement pattern. This could revolutionise the way emergency services respond to explosions such as the Buncefield disaster in 2005, where a contaminated cloud posed a risk to the local population. The technology will give a more accurate idea of which areas are likely to be affected.

Other civil applications include mining, oil exploration, surveillance and reconnaissance for traffic control, fire extinction, oceanographic or geological surveys, and marine and border inspection.

The Cranfield researchers were part of a team that won the 2008 Ministry of Defence Grand Challenge competition and are leading the world in the development of this type of technology. Professor Tsourdos hopes the technology will be deployed regularly within five years.

Notes for Editors

Representatives from Cranfield University’s Defence Academy will be showcasing the aerial surveillance technology alongside MOD research at Defence Research 2010 on 23-24 March.

Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council (EPSRC)

EPSRC is the main UK government agency for funding research and training in engineering and the physical sciences, investing more than £850 million a year in a broad range of subjects – from mathematics to materials science, and from information technology to structural engineering.

Cranfield University

Cranfield University is a wholly postgraduate institution with a worldwide reputation for excellence and expertise in aerospace, automotive, defence, engineering, environment and water, health, management and manufacturing. The University is made up of the following Schools: Cranfield Health, School of Management, School of Applied Sciences, School of Engineering, and Cranfield Defence and Security (located at the Defence Academy of the United Kingdom at Shrivenham).

Imperial College London

Consistently rated amongst the world's best universities, Imperial College London is a science-based institution with a reputation for excellence in teaching and research that attracts 14,000 students and 6,000 staff of the highest international quality.

Innovative research at the College explores the interface between science, medicine, engineering and business, delivering practical solutions that improve quality of life and the environment - underpinned by a dynamic enterprise culture. Since its foundation in 1907, Imperial's contributions to society have included the discovery of penicillin, the development of holography and the foundations of fibre optics. This commitment to the application of research for the benefit of all continues today, with current focuses including interdisciplinary collaborations to improve health in the UK and globally, tackle climate change and develop clean and sustainable sources of energy.

Image: Pilot 39 Squadron

Suggested caption: A pilot from 39 Squadron RAF remotely controls a Reaper MQ-9 Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV).
New framework technology being developed at Cranfield University’s Defence Academy could increase the use of this type of remote operation, meaning fewer military personnel would need to conduct dangerous surveillance operations in war zones.
Image credit: © Crown Copyright/MOD 2010/ www.defenceimages.mod.uk

Image: MUAV framework sky

An illustration of the sense and avoid (collision avoidance) system for cooperative Multiple Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (MUAVs) in a complex environment. The bottom left node shows the operator position at an air force base, while the top right node is the mission target. The white dashed lines are the estimated navigational errors. The system determines the safest flight path by calculating the relative distances (blue lines) between no no-fly zones (grey squares), updating the route as the target moves or new intelligence is gained.

Image: Reaper MQ-9 UAV

Suggested caption: A Reaper MQ-9 UAV (Unmanned Aerial Vehicle) prepares for a training mission.
Image credit: © Crown Copyright/MOD 2010/ www.defenceimages.mod.uk

Ref: PN 10-10


Professor Antonios Tsourdos
Tel: 01793 785841

Simon McLaughlin
Head of Consultancy, Department of Informatics and Sensors
Cranfield Defence and Security
Tel: 01793 785275

High resolution images are available from:
EPSRC Press Office
01793 444404.