The unmanned aircraft system (UAS) era of Earth observation has started, and the momentum is gaining. Even though regulations are not yet set, there are whole classes of UAS craft and application workflows that are achieving incredible productivity in trials and select applications. The insights that can be captured, and the new workflows required, have huge implications for the geospatial market.
High-altitude UAS technologies stand out for geospatial applications as they can provide persistent monitoring over a select area, staying aloft for long periods. These craft are often referred to as atmospheric satellites as they travel 60,000 feet above the Earth, staying connected and sending signals and observations to the ground in the same way as satellites. With their reasonable hardware cost, great coverage, and high efficiency, they could rewrite the game for so many monitoring applications.
High-altitude drones are really where the drone revolution got its start. The success of the MQ-1 Predator — a high-altitude surveillance, reconnaissance and persistent intelligence UAS with a kill ability — proved the efficiencies of such platforms. These same drones are being deployed in force for border monitoring as well as science missions. Now, a new class of civilian platforms are emerging to replicate some of these successes.
These high-altitude UAS operate in the FAA’s Class E airspace above 60,000 feet means that they’re able to fly autonomously with only one-way communication as long as the transponder maintains communication and the aircraft stays to its set course. With these relaxed parameters, these aircraft pose less of a hassle for launch, piloting, and flight management. They are relatively free to soar once they have obtained their altitude goal. At high altitude, they can cover much more ground under their gaze than lower altitude platforms.
There are several providers that are taking advantage of advancements in electric motors and the lowering costs of solar power to put together high-altitude platforms that generate the power needed to operate and stay aloft. The UK company QinetiQ holds a record for their Zephyr solar craft that stayed aloft for two weeks back in 2010. Since then several new players are trialing similar technology, including California-based Solar Flight and their Sunstar concept.
Compared to the cost of satellites, these high-altitude UAS platforms are cheap. They offer the ability to launch at a moment’s notice, and with the ability to land at most airports, they can be deployed quickly and easily to areas in need. The sensor configuration onboard can also be easily reconfigured and fine-tuned on multiple flights, allowing the instruments to be tuned to the task. These platforms are ideally suited to such missions as disaster response, given this flexibility. In addition to their observation capacity, these craft could also act as telecommunications transponders to fill in the usual communication gaps after a natural disaster.
The innovation in the UAS space is happening at both low and high altitude simultaneously as these are the altitudes that are less regulated for air traffic.
The under 500 feet altitude of small UAS and microdrones offer amazing mobility as well as clarity of capture as they improve on resolution due to their proximity. The multi-rotor variety has the means to capture in and around things such as infrastructure to fill in gaps that can’t be reached by any other sensor vantage point. There are quite a few limitations to this size and their set airspace as they can’t stay aloft for long and their proximity to people raises issues of privacy, safety and even noise and nuisance concerns.
At high-altitude, the reach and flexibility that can duplicate the reliability and coverage area of satellites opens up all-new opportunities. The high flyers can get above and beyond sight, staying aloft and unnoticed. There are some concerns at these altitudes as well, such as the presence of supersonic military craft that would close in fast, but the airspace is far less cluttered to allow for evasive action.
The type of operation that would be required to fly a high-altitude UAS platform for monitoring is at a scale similar to a satellite operation. This area could easily be the realm of tuned teams that can provide flight logistics, data processing and analysis and data products all within application-specific workflows. Soon we’ll see companies that are taking advantage of the proliferation of platforms to provide answers and insights for specific problem sets. The high-altitude UAS is a key platform to provide persistence, as well as the far-reaching communication node, for some interesting potential operations.