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TECHNOLOGY: EYES IN THE SKY


October 1, 2012
By Tom Rataj

1241 words – MR pics – rataj nov folder

Eyes in the sky

by Tom Rataj

An aerial view of the world can be a very enlightening experience, allowing us to see things and their relationships to one another from a completely different perspective.

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Google Maps/Earth brings to the screen satellite imagery that, until just a few short years ago, was available only to the military, governments, researchers and big corporations.

Bird’s Eye and Street View have created a whole new category of accessibility, allowing anyone with a decent Internet connection to virtually travel the world.

Want to visit Stonehenge in England but don’t have the time or money? Just fire-up Google Maps, type in “Stonehenge” and press enter. Drag the street-view man onto the ground and there you are doing a virtual walk-about.

Who among us have used these tool for investigative purposes? They are useful but be aware that the images may be dated. For example, the images of my house on Google Maps and Street View are more than three years old! A lot can change in three years.

{Affordability}

While these services are free and have their place, their limitations should be taken into account each time they are used.

Law enforcement agencies having their own eyes in the sky normally require a multi-million dollar budget, something many police services just don’t have (or their short-sighted municipal or regional governments aren’t prepared to provide because they view them as expensive “toys”).

{Helicopters}

Helicopters are probably the best and most versatile aircraft to provide an aerial view for law enforcement purposes.

They are reasonably fast, safe to operate, reliable and can provide a platform for a wide variety of technologies to assist police. Their main advantages over fixed-wing aircraft are the ability to hover in a stationary position and take-off and land in just about any type of terrain.

Most police helicopters are typically staffed by a pilot and spotter. The pilot is generally solely responsible for flying the craft while the spotter runs all the surveillance and other equipment on board.

Equipment generally includes video cameras, thermal imaging system, automated tracking technologies, high-powered spot-lights and a variety of other devices that helps catch bad-guys. Live video feeds can be streamed back to ground stations to provide incident commanders with a better view of a scene.

Although helicopters are incredible versatile and effective, they are expensive to operate, have limited flight endurance and require extensive routine maintenance. Putting two or more people in the air is also not without risk.

{Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV)}

For those on a budget, a UAV, also commonly referred to as a “drone,” might prove to be just the ticket. They encompass a wide variety of aircraft, from fixed-wing to helicopter configurations.

The most common type is the remotely controlled aircraft piloted by an operator on the ground. Less common, but the next big trend, is the “autonomous” aircraft piloted by onboard computers and electronics that follow a pre-programmed flight plan from take-off, through a complete mission and landing.

Probably the most famous UAVs are military drones,, such as the Predator or newer Reaper, used by the US military in various theatres of operation. In addition to being equipped with reconnaissance and surveillance equipment they are typically armed with munitions such as missiles or guided bombs – routinely used to kill suspected Taliban or al-Qaeda insurgents.

These UAVs are usually controlled by a “Combat Systems Officer” from a console in a military base back in the US. Their job is often likened to playing a video game.

Many military UAVs are quite large; the Predator B, for example, has a wingspan of 14.6m (48′), can carry up to 340kg (750lb) of ordinance, cruise at speeds of up to 390km/h (220 knots) and fly at altitudes of 15.2km (50,000 ft.) for up to 30 hours. In addition to military purposes, unarmed specialty versions of these UAVs are used for border patrol and surveillance. Their unmanned nature and extended flying time makes them ideal for this purpose.

Helicopter based UAVs are also used for a wide variety of military and non-military purposes. While they lack the long flight times of fixed wing drones, they offer the advantages of being able to stay in a stationary position, fly at lower altitudes and access locations where a full-sized helicopter cannot go.

{UAVs and policing}

The use of UAVs in policing is a growing market, driven partially by budgetary pressures that for a lot of smaller agencies precludes the use of helicopters or even traditional fixed-wing aircraft.

Canada’s leading UAV vendor, ING Engineering (www.ingengineering.com) offers a wide variety of aircraft from small hand-launched fixed-wing aircraft such as the Maveric and quad-rotor Scout up to larger fixed wing extended-range models such as the Serenity and Scaneagle that can remain aloft for up to 24 hours.

In business for more than 10 years, ING has more than 30,000 hours of persistent UAV flight times with the Canadian military in Afghanistan and Canadian police services. It offers complete turn-key solutions and full-service surveillance and reconnaissance services on a short-term basis.

In mid-September 2012, an Aeryon Scout UAV helped Halton Regional Police find a marijuana crop growing in a rural farm field. Valued at $774,000, it was readily identifiable from the air, growing between rows of corn.

Halton has used this UAV since 2009 for a variety of uses, including monitoring crime and collision scenes and search and rescue operations.

The Scout is manufactured by Aeryon Labs Inc. (www.aeryon.com) of Waterloo, Ontario and retails for about $60,000. It is piloted from the ground using a touch-screen control pad and can relay live video back to the operator. It can also be programmed to autonomously fly a pre-programmed flight path.

{UAVs for other purposes}

In addition to military and law enforcement purposes, UAVs are increasingly being used in a variety of roles, including atmospheric and scientific research, marine applications, survey and inspection of remote hydro, gas and oil pipelines and the movie and real-estate industries.

{Toys and models}

Hobbyists have been building remote controlled model aircraft for years. Many of the electronics required to build more sophisticated aircraft – gyroscopes, accelerometers and compasses – have dropped in price because the components are used in devices such as smartphones.

Remote controlled model aircraft kits are available at hobby shops and ready-made model aircraft can be bought for as little as $40.

{Permits}

Model aircraft under 35kg (77.2 lb.) do not require a permit when used for “recreational” purposes. For aircraft over this size, a Special Flight Operations Certificate must be obtained from Transport Canada at least four weeks before a flight is planned. Complete information is available at {www.tc.gc.ca}.

There are (rightfully) a variety of regulations controlling the use of any aircraft.

{Spy vs. Spy}

As with any other technology, UAVs can also be used by criminals to conduct counter-surveillance on law enforcement operations or facilities or competing “businesses.” They could also be used to deliver any type of small pay-load (guns, drugs, weapons or even an explosive device) into a location that would otherwise be inaccessible.

Technological advances in control systems and steadily dropping prices for components used by hobbyists make UAVs a rapidly growing market segment. Police can reasonably expect to encounter unlawful uses and accidents involving these machines.

Those wishing to get a hands-on, immersive UAV experience can attend the Unmanned Systems Canada Conference, set for Nov. 6-9 in Ottawa.