Unmanned… A Revolution Unfolding : Where Are We?

Issues Details: 
Vol 9 Issue 5 Nov - Dec 2015
Page No.: 
Sub Title: 
A revolution unfolding in unmanned space
Lt Gen (Dr) VK Saxena, PVSM, AVSM, VSM, (Retd)
Wednesday, November 11, 2015

While the Subject Matter Experts in the field forces on land sea and air are at pains to celebrate many a virtues of UAVs and the UCAVs in the combat domain and while we regularly see the cutting edge technology at work, in continuously revamping the unmanned machines from ‘singles’ to ‘swarms’ from ‘GCS controlled’ to ‘fully autonomous’ from ‘stand-alone’ operations to ‘teamed configuration’ with manned platforms and more… my case is quite different. I talk of the unmanned revolution that is unstoppably unfolding in the civilian domain. A revolution that is touching our lives on a 24x7 basis. A revolution that demands to be taken note off and understood in all its varied dimensions.

A stage has reached today that if you can think of a need to do something, surely there will be an unmanned machine that could do it for you. That’s where lies the problem since the proliferation and possibilities of these machines in our lives is so wide and deep, it is becoming extremely difficult for the authorities and the experts to regulate their co-existence with the civil manned platforms used my thousands and millions day in and day out. Besides, there are a host of other issues. And in this milieu, where is India? What are our problems? How our unmanned industry is getting debilitated? What lies ahead?

• Since the spread-sheet of the unmanned agenda in the civilian domain is so vast I intend to unfold it one at a time, viz- The Civilian Unmanned Scene Today,The Insertion of the Unmanned Machines in the National Air Spaces (NAS) of the Nations world over and the complexities involved therein, and finally, the Indian Case. But first the global scene…

• I feel that the real tribute to the ever expanding spread sheet of Unmanned was given by His Highness Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum, the Vice President of UAE and Prime Minister and Ruler of Dubai who in Feb 14, launched an international competition popularly known as the ‘World Cup of Drones’ and going under the name ‘Drones for Good’ aimed at encouraging useful and positive applications for drone technology . What could be greater measure of its success than the fact the Competition attracted some 800 entries from 57 countries! No wonder therefore that the 2016 version of the Competition is already active with last date for entries closing on 01 Nov 2016. Big money at stake! (1$ million for the international competition and UAE Dhs1 million for national level UAE competition)!

• In my view, why the spread of drones in civil domain is proliferating like wild fire is because of the magic of ‘DIY’, yes, (Do it Yourself). The two drivers which are fueling the DIY like anything are, firstly, the easy availability of the open source technology and secondly low costs. Talking of Low costs, open source is buzzing with offers to make a fully functional drone starting at $170 !  Also there is a ‘professional fashion’ these days to out-count the other in listing the possible uses of the unmanned in the civilian domain. Leading the pack is Thomas Frey, the futurist, the keynote speaker, the visionary, the author, the writer and the Exec Dir of the Da Vinci Institute, Colorado Denver, USA. Frey has imagined a whopping 192 uses of drones spread across twenty four categories with each category carrying eight entries. From EW Systems to Emergency Services, to News Reporting, Delivery, Business Activity, to Gaming/Sporting, Entertainment, Marketing, Farming, Ranching, Policing, Smarties, Real Estate, Business Facilitation, Spying, Health Care, Education, Science/Discovery, Travel, Robotics… the list has it all. Not only the routine stuff, the categorization also has some real smart and innovative ideas like the ‘Reality Distortion Drones’ with work areas such as odour-cancellation, sound/noise/visible light cancellation, Plant communicators or the Dating Drones helping the seekers with compatible partners. What is amazing in this huge listing is the realisation that a huge percentage of it is already a reality!

• Talking of dating, what do you say about the ‘Cupid Drone’ An ‘out-of-the-box’  idea of a flower retailer in Verona Italy, whose small and jazzed-up drones loaded with red roses close on the unsuspecting love-birds unleashing flowers on them. That’s the way to go this Valentine as the drones are there to say- Love is in the Air’. While this Cupid is all fun, there is also a slightly less romantic version of the Cupid Drone which releases a ‘small’ 80,000 volts of electricity in a Stun Gun effect. This deadly device is being tested as a tasing devise by the Austin Police.

6. While the ISIS continues to destroy the precious heritage of humanity ruthlessly , here are the Good-Samaritan drones which are painstakingly unearthing the yet unknown treasure troves of the ancient civilizations - a task beyond the humans. I am talking about the International Project by the university of Exeter, UK where drones fitted with laser instruments will pear through the canopy of the impregnable Brazilian Rain Forests in Amazonia looking for evidence of human  occupation thousands of years ago (pre-Columbian Period, at least 3000 years before Columbus arrived in 1490). The drones will try and locate the geometric pattern of earthworks known as Geoglyphs made by indigenous peoples.  The data is likely to inform policies on sustainable forest use today.

• You may have heard the All India Radio news announcing that three drones will be used to keep an eye on the miscreants - the so called Bahubalis in the upcoming Bihar elections. Keeping large swaths of area under surveillance on a 24x7 basis is  common and traditional role of drones which is nothing new. One has heard of the ‘Gorgon Stare’ (named after the terrifying female in the Greek Mythology) referring to the ‘unblinking stare’ provided by the unmanned machines covering large landmass for a wide-area surveillance sensor cover. In fact, to remove the sting in the mindset of people about unmanned, connected with combat , the Gorgon-Stare machines are being painted in bright colours.

• Over time, the unmanned machines have become invaluable Policing tools being pressed into service for a host of functions. Monitoring crowds, controlling riots, making up for the shortage of security staff or simply to infuse a sense of fear through a semblance of omnipresence, are very common. One recalls the Tirlokpuri Riots in Aug 2012 in Delhi or the public unrest and mayhem in Muzzafarabad in the recent past, where the drones could be seen in the domestic air space.

• Imagination can run wild when one thinks how the drones are galvanizing many a functional areas in the agricultural domain. From conventional works like surveying large fields, either for a routine look-see or for locating specific problem areas to pesticide spraying focussing on target areas precisely, it is drones at work. The new emerging field is drone-based soil research employing high resolution cameras, IR and Thermal sensors, as also, the ground penetrating radars.

• Drone-based delivery as a business application is actually quite an old idea now. These days, the online business giants, I mean the likes of Amazon, Flipkart and Snapdeal and more are filling the media space offering many a discounts in the festive season, I look excitedly for getting my order delivered through the drone! What is keeping it away is not the technology but maze of regulatory clearances for the insertion of the unmanned in the National Air Spaces. That done, the American retail giant (and many others) are ready with their promises of delivering 80-90% of their products in a matter of minutes from ordering. While the’ The Amazon Octocopter, or the Domino’s ‘Domicopter’ wait for clearances, Alibaba Group Holdings Ltd, Asia’s largest Internet Company in concert with Shanghai YTO Express Logistic Company, have made the beginning by trial delivery of ginger tea packets in many a Chinese households . And, what about Francasso Pizzeria in Amchi Mumbai using drones to deliver boxed Pizzas to customers on the roof of skyscrapers. That happened reportedly in May 2014 as a ‘You Tube’ video will make us believe

• From the yesteryears hot balloons to the high technology probes of today, weather forecasting has been the forte of the unmanned. The same stands completely revolutionized today.  I remember the Army Air Defence College facing the brunt of Super Cyclone Phylin in Oct 13 when I was DG, Army AD. We were totally dependent on the IMD weather forecasts minute-after-minute. This scenario is fast changing. Today’s technology allows the drones to spy on the storms as it moves by actually entering the ‘storm bubble’ (eye and around) to extract vital life-saving data on the pressure, winds, extent and eye-severity et al. As an emerging research field drones are being used to search new ways to predict storms and save lives. It is being studied  how the storms make tornadoes so that in the future, tornado warnings will be better informed  Many other functional areas include, 3D Mapping of huge landscapes, as if stitching thousands of digital maps, cyrospheric  research, environmental mapping, predicting forest fires using IR sensors and more.

• Talking of saving lives, drones make excellent life-saviours by becoming the first responders. Open source is full of videos showing drones reaching patients faster than a paramedic in crises and life-threatening situations delivering all sorts of things, medicines, water, defibrillators for heart attack victims and more. The famous octo-copters are seen entering remote and deadly areas too risky for human pilots, searching for spot casualties under debris in disaster situations using all types of sensors. Sensing body heat, hearing cries, searching for the missing bodies. The World Cup Of Drone National winner  (Flyability) in 2015, had made a collision-proof drone. The rotating cage over this drone provided collision safety and preserved structural stability of the payload, while the machine negotiated obstacles without loosing stability. Such a drone  can enter blocked mines, smoking buildings, accident sites and unstable structures without damage to itself.

• The international winner in the World Cup made a drone related to wild life conservation. The WADI drone (a combined effort of NY University Abu Dhabi and Wadi Wuryah National Park), the drone can fly in mere 1.5 hours, a stretch of about 40 km of the national park remotely uploading data from 120 Camera traps having valuable information on  endangered species, poaching/trespassing activity and more. Something that took the rangers many days!  Counting of animals, helping spot endangered cattle, studying animal distribution/densities etc, are other typical work areas of domain.

• Turning to the world of Sundar Pachai, Google’s Project Loon is making good news. The ambitious R&D Project by Google X aims to provide Internet access to rural and remote areas using high-altitude balloons placed in the stratosphere at an altitude of about 32 km (20 mi) to create an aerial wireless network with up to 3G-like speeds. Reportedly, the project was named  Loon (meaning a silly or a foolish person), since Google itself found the very idea of providing internet access to the remaining 5 billion population unprecedented and “crazy” .

• In the World Cup in Dubai, internationally the countries fielded drones that related to their sensibilities. For example, Spain learning from their experiences in Bosnia-Herzegovina fielded a mine seeking drone. The Sudanese team fielded a  drone for smart farming, Dubai put up a drone that is capable of dissipating fog , Aussies brought a Skynet delivery Drone. There were hundreds of other entries fielding drones of all kinds.

• My exposition won’t be complete if I do not mention about some crazy domains touching our world so intimately. One such thing is a whole new world of selfie drones. The open source video amazed me. Early morning selfie to deliver your smile to your beloved, far away. Your frown when stuck in the traffic jam delivered to you/your friend. Peeping tom selfies, Couple selfies, crazy selfies, anytime selfies , it has all the stuff to keep you glued to the AV content right through . And what about some far our drones. Like far-fetched ideas becoming realities yesterday

• What about the drones called the ‘far-out drones’. These drones indeed relate to the far-out concepts. Like it may be of interest to know that a massive Drone and FPV Club has been launched in Las Vegas USA. It is on Facebook, Twitter and other social media platforms and the membership is open. The Club provides a whole range of gaming activities involving all sorts of drones and quadcopters (drone platform with four rotors). The Club celebrates the International Drone Day on 14 Mar. The preparation for the 2016 event are in full swing. Interestingly, the words FPV  mean “First Person View”. It signifies that when a drone with a video device is up in the air , the pilot/controller on the ground gets the first person view as if he/she is on-board. There are several other far out ideas where people around the world are putting/imagining to put drones to good use either individually or in swarms. Swarms that can do multiple daily life chores or simply stand in to provide a variety of entertainment - light show, music melody..... just imagine...

• If so much good is to be sustained how to ensure its

co-existence with the manned aircrafts without the catastrophe of collision besides taking acre of host of other issues? This is a very tall order and the Nations of the world are still grappling with it. More about it in the next article.

Military Technology