May 28, 2012      

When UAVs wing home from their war duties, what then becomes of them? Historically, as conflicts begin to wane, the Department of Defense reels in its wartime spending and the cutbacks begin, part of which will mean far fewer orders for military UAVs.

That?s how AeroVironment, a central supplier of UAV aircraft to the military, sees it and the aircraft maker is already fast about reworking its unmanned aerial fleets for civilian purposes. In a recent press release the Monrovia, California-based UAV maker said that it is looking to demonstrate the use of its small,unmanned aircraft for use in post-disaster communications, for the Federal Communications Commission.

Shrike VTOL

AeroVironment announced its intention to demonstrate its capabilities for the FCC?s Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture (DACA) Notice of Inquiry (NOI) proceedings, which is aimed at finding aerial platforms to help bring communications back to areas after a natural or man-made disaster, when existing communications networks are unusable.

Hurricane Katrina, of course, is the yardstick used to measure how catastrophic communications failures affect all else in the aftermath of a disaster. “In some respects, Hurricane Katrina was the equivalent of a weapons of mass destruction (WMD) attack on the Gulf Coast, “points out Dr. Robert Miller, Senior Research Professor at the National Defense University.

“The hurricane caused catastrophic damage over an area roughly the size of Great Britain. Katrina,” he says, “offers lessons when viewed as a comprehensive critical infrastructure collapse, perhaps the most widespread critical infrastructure collapse that any advanced country has experienced since World War II.

Katrina Disaster

Virtually all of the critical infrastructure sectors in the region were put out of commission at the same time. Failures in one sector had cascading effects on others. These simultaneous failures far exceeded the experience base and available resources of public officials, and led to a partial or complete breakdown in command and control and in public order.”

Communications was a critical part of that infrastructure. Paul McHale, the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Homeland Defense, stated that ?the magnitude of the storm was such that the local communications system wasn?t simply degraded; it was, at least for a period of time, destroyed.?

That UAVs might come to bear at avoiding any such future failure of communications, is what AeroVironment intends to demonstrate. AeroVironment said it will use one of its hand-launched, small UAVs, like its Shrike, as an airborne communications relay; those unmanned aircraft currently can fly between 45 minutes and two hours.

AeroVironment is in search of more and more non-military applications for its unmanned aircraft, from gathering atmospheric data to delivering supplies to remote villages. For one of those non-military initiatives AeroVironment is examining the potential for its UAVs to rapidly re-establish communications when existing communications networks are knocked out following a natural or man-made disaster.

Aerovironment UAV

In a recent press release, AeroVironment said it will demonstrate using its family of portable, hand-launched small unmanned aircraft systems for creating an airborne communication relay. The individual aircraft, which include the RQ-11B Raven, Wasp AE, RQ-20A Puma and Shrike VTOL, are small enough to be transported in a backpack or vehicle and can be in the air in less than five minutes.

To enable hand-held public safety and emergency response radios to communicate with one another over long distances and beyond-line-of-sight without the need for ground-based antennas or repeaters, the unmanned aircraft will carry off-the-shelf communication relay equipment. This is in addition to AeroVironment?s Digital Data Link (DDL) component that enables encrypted, beyond-line-of-sight voice, video, data and text communication through each unmanned air vehicle and ground station.

?AeroVironment?s small UAVs have proven themselves to be reliable, rugged, and cost-effective lifesaving tools for troops on the frontline,? said Roy Minson, AeroVironment senior vice president and general manager of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. ?We are seeing only the beginning of the utility these tools can deliver to military and non-military users.

“By demonstrating how small UAVs can also provide instant communications capabilities we hope to help the FCC and industry envision valuable new applications of our technology to preserve lives, property and resources.?