At Insitu, we not only take pride in being providers of superior information delivery—we own that title and have the experience in the field to show it. For years, as we’ve served defense customers worldwide by supporting the warfighter we’ve also paved the way to serve our customers in the government and commercial markets with our best in class unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).
Aiding farmers through agricultural assessment, conducting search-and-rescue operations in the Arctic, supporting firefighters during the peak of wildfire season—these are just a few examples of how Insitu UAS and information processing software solutions have seen a number of new, successful applications. With these successes behind us, Insitu is ready to look ahead to the future of the government, commercial, and defense markets wherever we are needed.
Challenge: Trains carry vital supplies from all corners of the United States, so it goes without saying that keeping the tracks in impeccable working condition is a top priority for railway companies. When BNSF Railway called upon Insitu to conduct flyovers of an extensive stretch of track in New Mexico in the autumn of 2015, showing the utility of ScanEagle in supplementing the company’s railway monitoring efforts was only part of the equation. The operation also demonstrated one more way unmanned aircraft can fit into the National Airspace System (NAS) for the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) Pathfinder Program.
Solution: ScanEagle was launched multiple times over the course of a week in October 2015 from Vaughn, NM to inspect 140 miles of BNSF track between Tolar and Mountainair, NM. During the 14 hours of flyovers, ScanEagle targeted problems such as washouts and bridge damage. The information gathered was then fed back to Insitu personnel on the ground in real-time.
Result: The exercise demonstrated how in addition to a railway company’s traditional methods of track monitoring, unmanned aircraft can be a powerful force multiplier and further enhance railway safety and infrastructure inspection. This not only could promote the safety of the trains on the tracks being inspected, but also keep employees out of harm’s way and harsh conditions. In the bigger picture, the opportunity to present these capabilities as part of the Pathfinder Program will aid in the integration of unmanned aircraft into the NAS safely and further encourage the use of unmanned technologies for commercial applications.
The summer of 2015 was a bad one for wildfires in the Pacific Northwest of the United States. The driest spring in more than 100 years with a snowpack that was only 14 percent of average resulted in more than 625,000 acres of wildfires burning throughout the region by mid-summer. The Paradise Fire burning in Washington State’s Olympic National Park burned more than 2,700 acres alone and was eventually the fire that would summon Insitu’s Rapid Response Team with ScanEagle in tow.
Solution: Thanks to an emergency certificate of authorization (ECOA) issued to the Department of the Interior from the Federal Aviation Administration, ScanEagle flew six operations and delivered more than 37 hours of infrared video in near-real-time to Incident Command personnel over the Paradise Fire. Additionally, Insitu’s Catalina media server provided incident commanders with enhanced video imagery and improved geospatial metadata to determine the fire’s perimeter and identify hot spots. Maps created using Catalina’s Video Batch Mosaicker provided another valuable set of insight for the fire progression each day. ScanEagle also assisted helicopters by evaluating water drop locations.
Result: Coupled with ScanEagle flyovers, firefighters were better equipped to respond to the movements of the Paradise Fire as they were provided with time-sensitive information to give them the highest level of situational awareness possible as they fought the blaze. In the bigger picture, this demonstration and others will serve to guide the policies and requirements for the safe, phased integration of unmanned aircraft systems in support of wildfire management within the National Airspace System.
In the summer of 2015, Insitu returned to the North Slope of Alaska, this time to participate in the U.S. Coast Guard’s Research and Development Center’s Arctic Shield 2015 search-and-rescue exercise. Assets and resources are scarce in the Arctic Ocean, so in the event of an emergency every second counts. Situational awareness for decision makers is key during emergencies, but sending manned aircraft to facilitate initial response efforts in the Arctic environment can be dangerous. Unmanned aircraft can be used to keep search-and-rescue crews safe while working quickly to find their target.
Solution: During the Arctic Shield, the team responded to a simulated downed aircraft north of Oliktok Point using ScanEagle. After Insitu successfully demonstrated hub-and-spoke operations by handing control of the aircraft off to the Coast Guard Cutter Healy; ScanEagle circled above a six-man raft and thermal dummy and relayed imagery back to the Healy and decision makers on land. Meanwhile, Coast Guard and Era helicopters performed rescue operations below.
Result: Insitu’s Arctic Shield team and ScanEagle met all test objectives during the first day of flight operations. This verified the ability of small unmanned aircraft to conduct concurrent manned and unmanned aviation operations, as well as drove home the effectiveness of conducting search-and-rescue operations with unmanned aircraft. ScanEagle was also able to demonstrate ice floe mapping, marine mammal monitoring, and surveillance of waterways for potential national security targets. Due to the successes demonstrated during Arctic Shield 2015, Insitu was invited to return to Alaska in 2016 for the next iteration of the exercise, which will incorporate oil spill response.
Finding the bad guys at sea can be a little like searching for a needle in a hay stack. The area in question is massive and distinguishing a vessel operating under nefarious intentions from an innocent fishing boat can be a difficult determination to make. Such was the case in late spring of 2015 when Insitu personnel deployed with the Royal Navy launched ScanEagle from the HMS Richmond to track and monitor an area off the east coast of Africa.
Solution: After flying undetected above what were determined to be six vessels of interest, ScanEagle was able to monitor their activity and provide real-time, persistent information to commanders of the international task force carrying out counter-piracy and counter-drug-smuggling operations in that region. This information would eventually enable commanders to dispatch the Royal Navy, as well as ships from the Australian and New Zealand navies, to stop the vessels as they headed for Tanzania.
Result: The following series of raids overturned almost one ton of heroin carrying an estimated street value of $150 million. The utility provided by ScanEagle and Insitu personnel to the Royal Navy can be applied to counter-narcotics operations like this one, anti-piracy operations, and even anti-human-trafficking operations—but that’s only part of the story. As the knowledge of these missions spreads, those who intend to try to carry out further illicit maritime activities might think twice about their actions upon hearing of a small, unmanned, almost undetectable aircraft capable of seeing those who wish to remain hidden.
The scene after any natural disaster is always one of chaos. As such, it can be difficult for incident commanders to know where emergency response teams are needed in the first few hours following such an event. In March of 2015, Insitu’s Australia-based subsidiary, Insitu Pacific, demonstrated Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems’ (RPAS) ability to provide the information necessary to distribute emergency assets in a timely manner following Cyclone Marcia, the Category 4 cyclone that impacted various areas near Yeppoon and Rockhampton in February.
Solution: After briefing the Rockhampton Regional Council, Insitu Pacific conducted a series of flights using small multi-rotor copters in early March. Over the course of two days, Insitu Pacific teams flew the RPAS for a total of 12 hours while adhering to Civil Aviation Safety Authority restrictions of flying no higher than 400 feet within line-of-sight. The RPAS inspected three small waterways in the Rockhampton area to check for fallen vegetation and flood debris, which could have caused further flooding, blockages of culverts, or mudslides. Aerial surveys were also conducted off of a road to check for landslides or erosion, several instances of which were found through the footage gathered by the RPAS. Damage caused by the cyclone to infrastructure was also assessed from above during the demonstration.
Result: The smaller RPAS used in the aftermath of Cyclone Marcia were agile enough to access hard-to-reach areas for collection of detailed survey imagery, which was provided to the Rockhampton Regional Council’s assessment team. By providing this information to first responders quickly, situational awareness is increased, enabling teams to rapidly prioritize emergency response assets and activities. Insitu Pacific is now working with regional councils across Queensland in hopes of developing a statewide response plan using RPAS following emergencies so all areas in the state can have the same level of support.
Challenge: Constantly staying on top of every crop and agricultural function on a farm can feel overwhelming even for the most experienced agronomist in the most advanced operation. One 90,000-acre farm sought to monitor under-performing or damaged irrigation systems, insect infestations, and the general health of crops by turning to eyes in the sky as a solution to these issues throughout two growing seasons. This innovative approach to agricultural monitoring captured more data than manned aircraft ever could and addressed an issue farmers have dealt with for years: Surveying large-scale operations with a small footprint.
Solution: Beginning in 2013, a foam-core fixed-wing UAV was used to fly over a portion of the farm on a weekly basis. The full ScanEagle platform was implemented into the program in 2014. With its ability to fly below cloud cover, ScanEagle collected usable, high-resolution images even on cloudy days, a stumbling block for other forms of manned aircraft traditionally used to monitor crops. The multi-spectral payload used was able to provide high-resolution imagery and data, which was later processed by teammates with The Boeing Company. A dedicated payload engineer and Insitu’s Flight Operations team then worked directly with the agronomist on hand to determine how UAS application saved the farm time, effort and money.
Result: The farm has been able to pinpoint their attention to areas of interest through the use of Insitu’s ScanEagle UAS. By analyzing the data gathered during flyovers, the agronomist, who worked closely with Insitu’s team, has been able to focus on the general health of crops. When the farm’s irrigation system was checked from above, deficiencies were found and addressed faster than traditional monitoring. In one case an insect infestation was located using the ScanEagle platform. In another instance, the multi-spectral payload confirmed poor fertilizer application for spring pre-planting, an issue the farm’s other monitoring systems, including manned aircraft, were previously unable to detect. As more technologies are developed to improve automation and time-saving features for farmers, assistance via UAS will be pursued further. More flyovers at the farm will aid Insitu as we look to expand our work in the agricultural arena as part of our broader strategy in the commercial marketplace.
Challenge: Insitu’s unmanned aircraft are known for being an effective, reliable solution for operations that are too dangerous for other forms of aircraft. Such is the case when it comes to our maritime environmental collection project with ConocoPhillips. Sending oil rigs off the North Slope of Alaska has presented the unique challenge of needing to know where ice floes will be, but prior to Insitu’s work with ConocoPhillips there was no way to safely forecast their movement. Sending manned aircraft to fly over the frigid waters of the Chukchi Sea tends to be too dangerous and reliable satellite imagery is rarely possible due to persistent cloud cover. A bigger challenge was the lack of a certification process through the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) that would eventually allow the use of unmanned aircraft in this remote and vital airspace.
Solution: The resulting partnership between Insitu, the FAA, and ConocoPhillips would eventually pave the way for the development of rules to certify unmanned aircraft as a safe alternative to flying planes or helicopters full of people over an area where the probability of surviving unpredictable circumstances is slim. In 2013, ScanEagle became the first unmanned aircraft to receive a type certificate in the restricted category, which certified its design for use in the National Airspace System. In September of that year, ScanEagle launched from the Westward Wind to conduct the first ever FAA-approved commercial beyond visual line of sight flight of an unmanned aerial system. Data pertaining to ice floe forecasting was gathered during the 36-minute flight over the Chukchi Sea.
Result: In 2014, Insitu performed a second flight in collaboration with ConocoPhillips, this time launching ScanEagle at sea but recovering the aircraft on land. This marked the first time this capability was demonstrated to FAA regulators, and further solidified the case for Insitu’s work using unmanned aircraft to forecast ice floes as well as monitor marine mammals. When Insitu returned to the North Slope of Alaska in the summer of 2015, the team demonstrated applying ScanEagle to search-and-rescue operations for the U.S. Coast Guard.
Aerial surveys of marine mammals are routinely conducted to assess and monitor species’ habitat use and population status. In Australia, dugongs are regularly surveyed and long-term datasets have formed the basis for defining habitat of high conservation value and risk assessments of human impacts. Whilst providing valuable scientific data and supporting responsible growth of mining in environmentally sensitive areas, these surveys are expensive and dangerous to those involved as they require low-altitude flying with up to six people onboard the survey aircraft. Unmanned aerial systems (UAS) have enormous potential in replacing these manned missions.
Solution: In collaboration with the Australian Marine Mammal Centre and researchers from Murdoch University, Insitu’s Australian subsidiary, Insitu Pacific, undertook a three-year project to demonstrate that an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) is a suitable alternative to fixed-wing manned aircraft for marine mammal survey activities. By utilizing unmanned aircraft, human risk is eliminated and accuracy of detection and identification of species is increased. ScanEagle also enabled researchers to conduct surveys in remote regions where manned surveys are logistically challenging, more dangerous, and ultimately more expensive. Insitu Pacific developed several variations of still-imagery payloads and utilized existing electro-optic and infared full motion video payloads, the most suitable of which was found to be a digital single-lens reflex (DSLR) payload utilizing twin 24 megapixel DSLR cameras looking left and right to provide increased coverage. This payload combined with software developed by Murdoch University automatically detected dugongs and other marine mammals, such as whales.
Result: In September 2012, after three years and more than 100 flying hours and collection of more than 100,000 images, Insitu Pacific and Murdoch University had successfully demonstrated that dugongs could be readily detected using UAS. The benefits of this approach to environmental surveys, including increased safety, improved accuracy and record keeping, and cost reduction were validated. Additionally, the Civil Aviation Safety Authority allowed Insitu Pacific to extend its operations progressively over the term of the project culminating in Beyond Visual Line of Sight flights in Class G airspace off the Western Australia Coast in September 2012. There is work to do on further development of the automatic detection algorithms, but the use of UAS collection of imagery shows a great promise for the future.