Pilotless Aerial Vehicle Systems: Size, scale and functions

Jan 2013 | No Comment
The pressing need is to clarify the policy, regulatory and collateral issues including personal privacy before the industry to develop further

George Cho

Institute for Applied Ecology and Faculty of Applied Science
University of Canberra

Pilotless aerial vehicle systems (PAVs) have captured many people’s imaginations through the media as combat vehicles in various war zones around the world. These vehicles of combat have acquired the pejorative term ‘drone’ as these aircraft have ‘no intelligence’ and only respond by attacking positions identifi ed by forward personnel on the ground. Unmanned drones offer warfare with fewer casualties. The drone operator is in little danger of harm being some many of kilometres away from the combat zone.

But, PAVs have also been deployed for non-military work. In Australia, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) as ‘eyes in the sky’ have been used to patrol our beaches. Surf Live Saving Australia, one of the largest water rescue organisations in the world have been early adopters of this technology. This introduction is in addition to the suite of other technology including helicopters, watercraft, closed-circuit cameras linked with communication centres. The revolution in aviation is the result of highly integrated avionic systems and aeronautical processes.[1] Elsewhere UAVs could be providing early-warning intelligence for emergencies such as bushfi res and fl oods[2] or used by ecologists and scientists as conservation drones to monitor land-use changes and other drivers of biodiversity loss and greenhouse gas emissions, species distribution and carbon stocks.[3] In agriculture, ‘precision viticulture’ are being assisted by UAVs to collect data about a vineyard from sunny spots to soil humidity. When combined with global position system data and geographical information systems, the precise maps provides the vigneron with watering cycles, application of fertilisers and other processes to maximise wine productivity.[4]

Around the world’s sporting arenas there have been attempts to introduce UAVs to enhance the viewing public’s experience. At the recent London Olympics, trackside cameras on rails have followed the athletes in the last 200 m of their sprint to capture the excitement and closeness of the contest especially at the finish line. Other technology such as ‘spider cams’ have been introduced in stadiums everywhere to capture the action either by following an identified player on the fi eld or the ball. But these cameras are ‘tethered’ on guy cables and directionally fi xed and have a limited range of functions. It would be a much better experience if one could follow the cricket ball from behind a bowler’s arm or the batsman’s shoulder to give viewers that scintillating experience of either a wicket or a six. Television producers attempted to introduce the use of a pilotless helicopter in a recent Twenty20 Big Bash League cricket match in Perth. However, the attempt was abandoned because the producers could not obtain permission from the Australian Civil Aviation Safety Authority because of safety concerns.[5]

UAVs are enigmatic. There is a need to understand the technology and its future is highly dependent on the size, scale and function of the UAV. Whether these are characterised as helpful drones in a disaster or a killer drone will depend on policy, regulation and its legal uses. In this paper we only examine one aspect,how to defi ne and describe the PAV.

Slow adoption of regulations that allow for easy operation is the principal growth limiter for the industry

Drafting the rules has taken up an enormous amount of time (not only in the US), mainly because of the fact that the safety risks are not well understood

Peter Cosyn

CTO, Gatewing

UAV technology gives access to a massive amount of applications that will change our lives. A fundamental aspect of it is the fact that UAVs can be automated to a very high degree, even to the point that it essentially becomes a flying robot programmed for its task and with user interaction limited to remote actions for (safety) back-up only. This aspect has driven military ISR-applications (intelligence, surveillance an reconnaissance), mainly those that are commonly called D3 applications (dangerous, dull and dirty). The detailed geospatial information a UAV can provide (equipped with appropriate sensors) as well as potential cost savings are slowly but steadily making it a useful system in civil and commercial applications. Remote sensing is expected to be the main application category but there are others as well such as spraying (crops and forest fi res), transportation and its potential use as a communication relay station.

Gatewing (A Trimble Company) focuses on just a small part of the remote sensing applications, in particular those for geospatial mapping and surveying. Due to the fact that the task is well-defi ned prior to the fl ight, this allows for a high degree of automation, and due to the scalability of the sensor and the UAV technology, it can be packed as a costeffective, robust and easy-touse ‘tool’ for a technical person that doesn’t need to have any flying skills. As with most solutions based on remote sensing UAVs, it comes with software that is capable of transforming the sensor data in a useful data product for the user. Although the market for Gatewing is small compared to the total UAV market, it certainly is a signifi cant market. In the long run, it will open a market for multiple applicationtuned tools that offer quality data products with a clear TCO (total cost of ownership) for a specifi c business.

Slow set-up and adoption of regulations that allow for easy operation and commercial flights is the principal growth limiter for the industry. This is especially the case in the US (the biggest market for most applications) where no flights are allowed and even approval for flight testing in the NAS (national airspace) is very difficult to obtain. The main reason is the fact that the FAA (Federal Aviation Administration) closed the airspace for all civil and commercial applications in 2003 (when the commercial and civil market was still in its infancy) in an effort to mitigate safety risks as no rules on proper evaluation and use of UAVs where available at that time. Drafting the rules has taken up an enormous amount of time (not only in the US), mainly because of the fact that the safety risks are not well understood and are expected to vary in a broad spectrum depending on the size, speed and material content of an UAV, as well as its specific tasks and actions. It is actual a ‘chicken or the egg’ problem: viable and safe business cases are difficult to proof if there is no opportunity to fly and sell the system or service on a small scale. In parallel, lobby groups with a different agenda, such as pilot organization that fear jobs (although the pilot definitely is considered a target group for companies looking for skilled UAV operators in less straight-forward missions), have their say in the process. The media is not always helping either as they sometimes zoom in on the cowboys (the guys that defy the rules and fly irresponsibly) and as they continue to talk about military UAVs and their civil counterparts in one ‹breath›, typically using archaic words with a very negative connotation such as the word ‹drone›. Small scale solutions with limited risks and straight-forward missions, such as the Gatewing X100, offer a way forward in many countries and are becoming the market push for UAV technology … except in the US.

A country that has shown the way forward in Europe and is also a big guide in Europe’s effort to harmonize the rules between the nations is the UK. Their process is established for some years now: they have a setup to qualify systems and operators and, although it still is a bit cumbersome, this is enough to build a market with all protagonists involved: organizations that help the government qualifying manufacturers and operators, training centers, service providers, insurers and – of course – endcustomers. A year ago there w ere already more than 100 companies registered that do UAV operations commercially in the UK. A second example is Japan, a densely populated country but with a history of commercial UAV operations. Since the year 2000, a few thousand Yamaha R-Max helicopters have been used for rice spraying.


Pilotless aerial vehicles (PAV) have acquired various monikers including ‘drones’, ‘unmanned aerial vehicle’(UAV), ‘pilotless aircraft’, ‘uninhabited aircraft’, and mini-satellite or small satellite. For present purposes the term pilotless aerial vehicles, drones, UAVs is used interchangeably to mean one and the same –the aircraft itself. Sometimes more specifi c reference will be made to distinguish different categories of pilotless aerial vehicles according to particular characteristics such as size, shape, form, speed, mass and other attributes. The general term unmanned aerial systems (UAS) will refer to the totality of the operations where the UAV is but one item.

Drones, while unmanned, are not unpiloted. Ground support from a distance is required to assist in navigation and general fl ight. Technically drones are not supposed to be re-used, but re-use has become commonplace as these vehicles are now designed to return to base unless they have been intercepted, damaged or destroyed in some way. Drones were so named because they have no ‘mind’ of their own – a robot with no autonomous decision-making capabilities. However, modern UAVs are more sophisticated with the ability to optimise fl ight paths, control speed, multitask, and carry various navigation and surveillance platforms and weapons. These types have become known as UCAV – unmanned combat aerial vehicles. Even so, ‘attack’ drones do not have the independence to identify targets nor launch weapons; these are tasks that are left to human operators back at base some distance away.[6]

Reusable aircraft with the help of human operators from a distance have been in existence as early as World War I where U.S. developers built and tested the fi rst robot attack plane – the Curtiss-Sperry Flying Bomb for example. Pilotless missiles were also a feature of the V1 Flying bombs or doodlebugs of WW II.[7] With the miniaturisation of electronics, light weight digital cameras and other sensors have been built into UAVs giving them an extended range of functions. These UAVs integrate global navigation satellite systems (GNSS) with inertial navigation and other equipment. With the maturation of these autonomous systems through micro-electromechanical system development it is predicted that there will be a growing market especially for those services that offer photogrammetric images of the natural environment, the safe inspection of tall structures, its general use in surveillance and other applications. It has been estimated that the global military drone market alone is close to US$5.9 billion in 2012.[8] But the question is whether the predicted developments will take place in the civilian market without the requisite policy, regulatory and industry support mechanisms in place. There is a need to explore these possibilities.

While high levels of skill and inventiveness might be required in supporting UAS, there have been policy and regulatory constraints to the more rapid development and evolution of the UAV industry. In a later section this paper examines what these are and how these may act as barriers that may work to impede UAS development. Much of the operational standards and legislative requirements are as yet unarticulated, remain fuzzy in concept and implementation, and have no comparative international benchmarks. In terms of nomenclature in common use, a comparison of the different types of small satellites and UAVs is summarised in Table 1 below. The terminology used may already have introduced some confusion. For present purposes the simpler reference to micro- and mini-UAVs is preferred. The reason is that when the so-called military drones or the remotely piloted aerial (RPA) systems are brought into the equation the order of magnitude become very large. Military drones are much bigger in size, have an enlarged scale of operations, carry heavier payloads, and travel at higher speeds. This upscaling of the vehicles suggests that the term ‘satellite’ might be in order whilst at the same time accommodating thesmall- to nano-scale vehicle types.

UAVs have already majored to a professional surveying tool

Probably the two biggest challenges for the UAS market in future will be to deal with upcoming airspace regulations and to increase the visability of civil UAS applications in the public opinion on UAS

Johanna Claussen

CEO, MAVinci

Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) are increasingly used in the geo and mapping sector as an alternative to traditional surveying methods. They are a major asset for many surveying applications because of their advantages compared to traditional surveying methods. These new tools convince in cost efficiency, fl exibility and data quality. For some applications such as volume measurement UAS even fill gaps that traditional methods cannot address with acceptable effort.

For surveying applications small unmanned airplanes or multicopter type UAS take aerial images of the area of interest. After the flight true orthofotos or digital elevation models are calculated from the data. The achieved orthofotos or digital elevation models serve as a basis for mapping, planning and other surveying tasks.

When operating a UAS, winds and thermal effects can easily produce oblique views in the order of several degrees. These tilted images are a problem for traditional photogrammetry software but due to recent developments in computervision technology new post processing software solutions (such as Photoscan Pro by Agisoft and the Pix4UAV software by Pix4D) exist that are insensitive to highly tilted images. The camera’s orientation is reconstructed from the image data itself with high accuracy so the accuracy of the MEMS based IMU is not the limit of the overall accuracy of the final product.

The main advantage of fixed wing UAS compared to helicopter type systems are longer flight times. Therefore the area covered by a fixed wing UAS typically lies in the order of a few square kilometers. While multirotor UAS typically focus on small urban areas or buildings the applications of fi xed wing UAS mostly lie outside of urban areas and even in remote areas with little to no infrastructure. Another clear advantage is the higher payload capacity of the fi xed wing type airframes. This enables the system to carry a more advanced camera, which takes high quality images.

The UAS market is clearly a fast growing and innovative market. Probably the two biggest challenges for the UAS market in future will be to deal with upcoming airspace regulations and to increase the visability of civil UAS applications in the public opinion on UAS.

From our point of view as a manufacturer of UAS for surveying applications this emerging technology does not only provide a costefficient method of collecting 3D data but it also enables totally new applications. The MAVinci technology has proven its cost effectiveness in various projects. The high degree of innovation in the UAS market results in simple products that are no more difficult to use than other traditional surveying equipment. Despite their toy like appeal UAVs have already majored to a professional surveying tool that can compete with traditional surveying methods.

Some observations

Table 1 portrays the diversity and differences in the nomenclature in current use as a rudimentary classifi cation system for UAS. The first observation from the table is the reference to the term satellites and also to small aircraft and light UAVs. These are further distinguished as to whether they are micro- or mini-satellites. Generally, the distinction is that of mass of the vehicle and its deployment. Microand mini-satellites or UAVs are the smallest of the vehicles and generally fly below 300 m. Designs have focussed on creating UAVs that can operate in urban canyons or inside buildings, flying along hallways, carrying listening and recording devices, transmitters, or miniature TV cameras. If nothing, else the diminutive size provides vast opportunities and applications in the civilian sphere. The U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) criteria for micro UAVs include a size of less than 15 cm, a mass of 100g or less, a payload of 100 g, a range of 1-10 km, endurance of 60 mins at an altitude of less than 150 m fl ying at 15 m/s.[9]

A second observation from the table is that where the mass of the vehicle is less than 150 kg their use and operations are governed by local and national regulations. This is because these types of vehicles are considered to be in the ‘model aircraft’ class of vehicles in the U.K., U.S., and Australia and hence may not require certifi cation standards similar to those of manned aircraft.

A third observation is that tactical UAVs that include special task UAVs and strategic UAVs. Tactical UAVs are heavier platforms of up to 1,500 kg with six subcategories depending on the range, altitude and endurance. A sub-class is that of the lethal and decoy UAV that weighs up to 250 kg that are used for special military operations. In general, there is a lack of satellite communication systems because of weight and payload restrictions and hence place limits on the distance and range these aircraft can operate. An example is the medium altitude long-range endurance (MALE) UAV known as the MQ-1B Predator. The MQ-1B Predator has sensors in its bulbous nose cones, on-board colour and black and white TV cameras, image intensifi ers, radar, infra-red imagery for low light conditions, lasers for targeting and armed with laser-guided missiles. With a cruising speed of between 135-217 kph, a payload of 204 kg and two Hellfi remissiles the cost of maintaining such a system has been estimated at $20 m.[10]

Table 1. Small satellites and UAVs: Classification table

Notes: ? = unknown or indeterminate; CAA Civil Aviation Authority (U.K.), EASA European Aviation Safety Agency (E.U.)

Sources: Satellite classifi cation: accessed 24/9/2012 and European UnmannedVehicle Systems Association (EuroUVS) (2006) UAV System Producers and Models: All UAV Systems Referenced. Paris: EUVS.

Strategic UAVs, on the other hand, operate at higher altitudes; have heavier platforms with longer range and endurance. High altitude long-range endurance (HALE) can weigh between 2,500 – 12,500 kg with a maximum fl ight altitude of about 20,000m. These UAVs are highly automated and ground control station monitoring at all times. The famed Northrop Grumman UAV Global Hawk boasts an endurance of 35 hours. There are also non-military HALE such as the solar powered Helios from Aerovironment operated by NASA for Earth Observation (EO) missions such as for communication purposes, mapping and atmospheric monitoring. Fourth, one class of UAV that is seldom featured in discussions are vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) vehicles. These are rotary wing vehicles with a range of weights and confi gurations. These VTOL UAVs are capable of hovering over specific sites and fly at low altitudes in urban areas. There are both civil and commercial applications such as surveillance and reconnaissance. In general the smallest class of UAVs are used for civil applications while strategic UAVs are the largest and mostly used in military missions. Cost is a major consideration. For example the MQ-1B Predator’s operational parameters may rule out its deployment for civilian use given that other more economic solutions may be available. Also the classifi cation scheme depicted on Table 1 uses mass as a surrogate measure so as to place these vehicles in some order of magnitude. In theory and practice, a more accurate classifi cation schema is to calculate the kinetic energy impact levels of UAVs. This index is easily calculated for any aircraft and may be used as a criterion to classify aerial vehicles.

Civil aviation authorities have started to legalize the use of drones for commercial applications

Andrea Hildebrand

Co-founder, senseFly

Recent advances in technology such as very light sensors (GPS, barometers, gyroscopes, etc.) and small but powerful processors & equipment (batteries, cameras, etc.) have opened the door to the development of easy-to-use, small and lightweight autonomous flying systems. This new generation of drones is beginning to conquer the civilian market, especially for GIS, mapping and surveying applications. Indeed, the sky offers new perspectives: small & lightweight drones allow operators to safely capture data anywhere and any time without complex procedures or long preparation time. Small drones are primarily used in the civilian market to produce videos or pictures. In the case of pictures, each image can be linked to a position thanks to the onboard GPS. Images with sufficient overlap can be processed to obtain a geo-referenced Othomosaic and Digital Elevation Model (DEM), thus delivering direct input for environmental planning, construction and mining-related activities.

Why is this new technology so relevant for private companies or public agencies?

In this time of economic crisis cost reduction and high effi ciency are key. There are many operational benefits to the use of small drones for high precision mapping and surveying: Cost reduction: When compared to manned aircraft, the return on investment of a small drone system for mapping of areas of up to 10km2 occurs in general already after the third flight.

Cost reduction is therefore tremendous. Increased efficiency: Compared to traditional ground surveying, a drone mapping mission is very time-effi cient. For example, an area of 1m2 with an Orthomosaic precision of under 10cm can be accomplished in around 30 minutes. Improved on-site safety: A drone is a remote surveying system and therefore can be operated at safe distance from any dangerous working areas (construction, mining, quarries, or polluted sites). This is especially true for small and very light weight drones as they present a low risk for third parties in case of system failure.

Beside those operational benefi ts, small drones have environmental benefits too: they are eco-friendly (usually electricpowered) and are very quiet in comparison to aircrafts. As they are simple to operate, quick to deploy and affordable, they have become accessible even for small businesses and NGOs thus allowing data gathering for sustainability projects (agribusiness, reforestation) or disaster management.

How do the different aviation authorities regulate the use of drones?

Civil aviation authorities around the world have started to legalize the use of drones for commercial applications and are working on related regulation standards. UK, Australia, Canada, France, Germany, Switzerland among others have already implemented dedicated rules to regulate VLOS (Visual line of sight) and even exceptionally BLOS (Beyond line of sight) operation of drones. Other countries (US, Brazil, South Africa among others) are still working on the definition and implementation of standards. Existing regulation standards can include the need for an airworthiness certificate for the drone (often dependent on a weight criteria), a permit to fl y in a certain area (often dependent on mission scenarios) or a license for the operator.

Preliminary Conclusions

The general impression is that there is an increasing need among industry groups, private users and researchers to use UAVs for their own purposes. The relative absence or exception to policy from stringent air safety regulation makes the small UAV an attractive platform for users and manufacturers alike. Whether this hypothesis is sustainable is yet to be tested. However, this observation alone suggests the pressing need to clarify the policy, regulatory and collateral issues including personal privacy before the industry is to develop further. In addition, there may be signifi cant ethical issues arising from the military as against civilian uses of the technology. From a safety point of view, the integration of the use of such vehicles from the segregated military airspace to the more general civilian airspace may require the development of some form of a shared ‘open’ skies policy. Industrial uses and developers of such systems may also require certainty with rules and regulations, interoperability of requipment in different jurisdictions and a market that may be sustained and large enough to pay dividends for the investments in research and development. In this respect there is as yet an internationally agreed classifi cation system for UAS.

The greatest challenge is acceptance by the aviation fraternity

Simon Morris

GIS Manager, Hawkeye

The applications for UAV/UAS technology are many, and the benefi ts are already being realised around the world. With a high degree of stability and a high resolution sensor we are employing the technology in the mining, construction, engineering and survey industries. A common factor among these environments is the safety culture and in particular the site safety requirements. An area where the UAV shines is its ability to service these sites without putting the operators in harm’s way. The UAV allows the team to stand off and perform the task without entering the mine or worksite, as the case may be, and therefore reduces the risk to the individuals and the safety burden to the operating company. There is much potential yet for new and exciting applications of this technology. As airborne sensors becomes smaller and more affordable, specialised acquisition which had previously only been the domain of manned aviation domain will inevitably become part of the UAV/UAS toolbox. These may include multi and hyperspectral cameras, thermal video, air quality and gas sniffers to name a few. With the advent of hydrogen fuel cell technology, the potential for extremely long endurance from UAV/UAS systems draws steadily closer.

One of the challenges to the UAV/UAS industry is to allay the public fear that all of these types of aircraft are “spy drones” and their privacy will potentially be impacted each time one flies. Spreading the word that photogrammetry or mapping UAVs pose no threat in this regard is the key here. But perhaps the greatest challenge for UAV operators is acceptance by the aviation fraternity. We refer fi rstly to the pilot community, who view the saturation of their airspace with unmanned aircraft with much trepidation, worrying about separation and avoidance with potentially unsafe vehicles sometimes too small to see. Secondly and very importantly we refer to the aviation legislators and airspace management, the likes of the FAA in the United States and CASA in Australia. These organisations maintain oversight of the operation of all signifi cant powered aircraft and demand that minimum standards are met. It is our belief at Hawkeye UAV that no commercial UAV should be operated outside the law, and as such we have always postured ourselves to seek approval for our business practises, documentation, procedures and aligned our operations with the governing body responsible for each country. We are aviators ourselves and recognise the risk inherent with UAV fl ying so the importance of authorisation not only protects us and our clients, but enables us to be insured for our operations. It begs the question, should UAV operators undergo training and should proof of training be required if asked for by authorities? Longevity of the equipment is an inevitable challenge as UAVs have entered their commercial life and begun to amass fl ying hours. How long should each reasonably be expected to last? The equipment is often expensive and with many aircraft types employing a controlled-crash or belly landing recovery method, the lightweight airframes suffer a lot of stress. With traditional aircraft there are extensive maintenance schedules and inspection regimes. Should an
unmanned aircraft be any different?


[1] See Lovell, B (2012) ‘Eyes in the sky: how unmanned aircraft could patrol our beaches (and more)’, The Conversation 9th March 2012 and available at http:// patrol- our-beaches-mand-more-5617/ [2] See Creedy (2012) ‘Drones could be fi re-fi ghting eye in the sky’, The Australian 7th Dec 2012, p. 35.

[3] Wich, S & Koh, LP (2012) ‘The use of unmanned aerial vehicles by ecologists: Conservation Drones’, GIM International November, pp. 29 – 33.

[4] Kleinman, Z (2012) ‘Cheers! How drones are helping the wine industry’ BBC News Business’ available at on 13/11/12.

[5] Barrett, C (2012) ‘Chopper-cam not clear for take-off’, The Sydney Morning Herald 14th December, p. 19.

[6] According to one report more than 19 analyst are required to support each orbit of a UAV. See Secrecy News (2012) Greater autonomy for unmanned military systems urged, vol. 2012 Issue no. 89, September 6, 2012 at, accessed 07/09/2012.

[7] See Hardy, M (2012) Unmanning the War on Terror: Attack of the Drones, The Conversation 2 May 2012 at accessed on 03/05/2012.

[8] Stewart, C (2012) Drones, lives and liberties. As civilian use of unmanned aerial vehicles grows, so too does the risk to our privacy, The Australian 1 March 2012, p. 11.

[9] See Pines, DJ & Bohorquez, F(2006) ‘Challenges facing future micro air vehicle development’, American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics Journal of Aircraft, Vol.43 no. 2 (March), pp. 290 – 305.

[10] This system will involve four aircraft, ground control station and satellite link. See news/world-south-asia-10713898.Accessed 02/09/2012.

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