National Drone Show: Taking Command and Control

The National Drone Show kicks off with a look at drone communications
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The National Drone Show kicks off with a look at drone communications
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Fred Bivetto with the Unmanned Vehicle University shared his expertise regarding command and control of drones at a National Drone Show session. (Photo: Mary Ellen Dawley)

WASHINGTON - Imagine flying a $100 drone; then imagine flying a $120 million drone, or anything in between. Today’s presenter at the National Drone Show session “Command & Control for Drones,” has done just that. In front of a packed crowd – with an occasional drone flying in the cage next to the Presentation Theater – Fred Bivetto, dean of the Unmanned Vehicle University (UVU) School of Unmanned Technology, shared his expertise regarding command and control of drones. Bivetto began the session with a video created by one of his former students who went on to launch his business as a government contractor in South Africa using drones for anti-rhino poaching.

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Seeing that a drone is actually a wireless robot, it must be communicated with wirelessly. There are two types of links to achieve that. “The energy that’s goes up to the drone [from the operator] is a command and control link,” Bivetto said. “That’s going to tell the drone to turn right, turn left, ascend, put landing gear down, etc. What is coming down from the drone is what I call the health and status link... Is the drone doing what you told it to do? How’s the battery power? How much fuel is left?”

In the anti-rhino poaching video, command and control involved a number of people in the operation of the drone: the flight director (or pilot), the sensor operator to read the equipment and the mission party to communicate with the park ranger on the ground once the infrared images were transmitted back to the command vehicle.

For our armed services, command and control is a remote/split operation. “If you’re flying a combat mission in Afghanistan with a Predator, there is person sitting in the ground control station in Afghanistan, somewhere, and they are taking off and landing the drone using line-of-sight links,” he said. “You really need to be close for taking off and landing, until you get away from the base. Then they do a hand off to another pilot.” That pilot is sitting in Nevada, who then flies the combat portion of the mission. That pilot returns control to the operator in Afghanistan to bring the drone back to the base and land it.

“Here’s how this happens. You have landlines and fiber optics that take you from Nevada all the way to Germany. Then Germany uses satellite antennas to bounce off a satellite in space to the drone,” Bivetto said. “Then when the drone wants to send content back to you, it shoots information back to the satellite and to the satellite dishes in Germany, and by landline back to [Nevada].”

The session continued with discussions of internal operations, bandwidth, the increased use of panoramic displays and the importance of antenna selection. Current trends have preferred drone size moving from small to medium and large, with the micro moving to tactical service. Bivetto sees a decrease in the use of external operator control and an increased use of automation for internal operations.

For command and control, “Automation is the way to go,” he said.

The National Drone Show, co-located with the 2015 Government Video Expo, continues until Dec. 3 at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center. Registration is still open. Details can be found at