The U.S. government is grooming unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to take to the skies over the United States, with law enforcement expecting to lead the way in the use of UAVs for specific missions, including searches.
The Leptron Avenger unmanned helicopter in flight.
Law enforcement agencies will likely put those aircraft to a multitude of uses with search and rescue one of the most important, says Lt. Chad Gann, of the Arlington, Texas, Police Department. The Arlington PD is “going to use these aircraft on a mission- specific basis,” he said. “For instance, if there’s a lost child in a wooded area, the aircraft can be deployed quickly and can cover much more area.”
In addition to search functions, the aircraft can be used to look for evidence as part of investigations, such as investigating fatal automobile accidents, Gann said. When a fatal “crash occurs on a highway, as a part of the forensic investigation we have to create a diagram of the crash,” he said. To create that diagram, the Arlington PD will send up an unmanned helicopter—which is the department’s unmanned aerial vehicle of choice—to take needed video, he said.
The Arlington PD has selected the Leptron (of Ogden, Utah) Avenger helicopter because it is battery operated, making it safer than a fuel powered aircraft, Gann said. In addition, the Avenger can operate in cross winds of 35 miles per hour, while slower, less durable models are not able to operate in such a crosswind. In Texas because the weather is so unstable, the Arlington PD would be forced to fly fewer missions. Other UAVs are not capable of flying in heavy winds, he said.
The Avenger is 58 inches long and 20 inches high, weighs 11 pounds and can carry 10 pounds of cameras, night vision, heat sensing, radiation detecting and other remote sensing equipment. The unmanned helicopter offers several camera options, including the Sony Block and Flir turret mounted cameras. The turrets hold cameras that provide target and path tracking, image stability and multiple cameras in one turret, according to Lepton. The turrets are fully featured and enable remote joystick operation in conjunction with the autopilot systems.
The Leptron Avenger’s camera systems
In addition, Lepton offers tactical cameras that allow for standard “commercial off-the-shelf” options such as the FLIR Photon/Tau 320/640 camera, the Sony HandiCam high definition (HD) camera and the Nikon D5000 digital single lens reflex camera (DSLAR). The Avenger “is a video/photography platform, which is the main reason we’re using this aircraft,” Gann said. However, he stresses the Arlington PD will not use the aircraft for routine surveillance or patrol purposes.
What a UAV will be used for will depend on the law enforcement agency, but how it will be used is the purview of the Federal Aviation Administration, which is allowing the Arlington PD to evaluate the Avenger. Establishing unmanned-aircraft standards is necessary because there are entities that believe UAV use does not require FAA approval, Gann said.
However, ensuring safe operation of the aircraft is important, therefore the department “determined it is probably in our best interest to work with the FAA because of their emphasis on safety,” he said. The Arlington PD contacted the FAA and the agency provided “a list of tasks to accomplish” as part of the evaluation, he added.
Of course the Avenger and its cameras are not the only UAV video technology.
SC Technologies Inc. (SCT) specializes in providing video and audio to UAV manufacturers, said Bill Rogers, SC Technologies’ vice president of sales. SCT works to determine the needs of the various unmanned platforms, whether they are air, ground or maritime, he said. SCT covers everything from largescale pan/tilt/zoom, radar and infrared technology, down to micro-board cameras that might be found on very light unmanned aerial systems, he said. In addition, “the big growth” among UAV production has been occurring with smaller platforms, he said.
Evertz Microsystems Ltd.’s Multi Video-Display Product.
The shift has been from large weapons platform drones, to small drones that are hand-launched and used primarily for surveillance, Rogers said. The smaller UAVs can still reach heights of 10,000 feet, but the video optical devices in those aircraft have to be able to zoom in on a ground subject to a radius of 10 feet. SCT provides solutions meeting that need, “with the video component fitting inside of a drone platform,” he said. Those UAV camera capabilities are designed to meet clients’ needs. “Today, in the unmanned space market, it’s about giving the clients a bigger bang for their buck.”
Of course for an UAV to be useful, its cameras have to transmit the video collected to an operator. This is where Evertz Microsystems Ltd.—which designs and manufactures audio and video infrastructure equipment—has a role. To facilitate those transmissions, Evertz offers the Multi Video-Display Product (MVP), says Orest Holyk, the company’s senior director of sales.
The MVP is a collection of linked input and output modules residing in one of several 6 RU, 15-slot frames, Evertz says. The interface between the input and output modules is a serialized data link “P-Link” using a standard BNC-coax cable.
SC Technologies Inc.’s micro camera for unmanned aerial vehicles.
In addition, the MVP supports all formats of input content found in the most advanced broadcast facilities from baseband composite analog video, SD-SDI, HD-SDI, and even tackling 3Gb/s. The unit can handle outputs from a variety of graphic sources using digital visual interface, video graphics array and highdefinition multimedia interface HDMI. For facilities where baseband video is not present or feasible, the MVP also offers support for asynchronous serial interface and Internet protocol (IP)-based moving picture experts group (MPEG) transport stream decoding and monitoring. No other platform in the industry offers the same range of input, output, Evertz says.
What the MVP enables users to do is consolidate all of their video sources in one box, and drive a display wall from the same box, Holyk said. The user can see everything that is needed to see, as much as desired, and specifically, the areas that need to be viewed, he added. To facilitate that, the MVP offers several signal monitoring type tools so if the video is lost, or goes to black, the unit will provide screen updates, he said.
What it comes down to is the MVP is versatile, user friendly and is meant to be used by people with varying expertise levels—from operators through administrators, and the engineering tech types—in a number of applications, Holyk said. Those users include “three-letter acronym” government agencies.