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SkySeer™... Eyes in the Sky

Written by Bill Siuru

Recently, a group of officers from the Los Angeles County Sheriff’s Department was seen in front of the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, CA flying a radio-controlled model airplane. However, this was not your ordinary model airplane, but the Octatron SkySeer™. SkySeer is a high-tech, but relatively inexpensive unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, designed specifically for law enforcement work.

The 4-pound SkySeer has a top speed of 24 mph and a minimum speed of 16 mph. It can stay aloft for up to 70 minutes on its rechargeable lithium polymer battery that powers the propeller’s electric motor, onboard camera, control surfaces, transmitter/receiver and GPS-based autonomous flight control system. Landing the SkySeer and swapping in a fresh battery can extend flight times. Its range of 2 miles, determined by the transmission range, can be extended by using Octatron’s NetWeaver™ wireless network.

The SkySeer carries a video surveillance camera that transmits images in real time. It flies autonomously on a flight path programmed in before launch and using GPS waypoints. For example, it could be programmed to fly to the target, circle it a couple of times while taking pictures and then return. However, the camera, which can pan 160-degrees and tilt 90 degrees, is controlled in real time by a joystick on the ground station. It can also be flown manually with an optional remote control. Various video cameras—color, high-resolution B/W, or thermal camera for nighttime work—can be fitted. Images are transmitted in real time for viewing and recording on DVD or Flash Media.

This SkySeer’s exoskeleton is made of foldable graphite composite poles and a parachute cloth skin. The durable and flexible frame allows for a soft landing. It can also be caught in midair or recovered via a parachute that the company plans to offer. The plane’s propeller shuts off before landing for safety. The SkySeer has a wingspan of 6.5-feet and folds so it can be stored in a tubular carrying case so it can be transported in the trunk of a police car or even in a backpack for carrying into remote areas.

The 20-pound ground station features a bright, daylight, LCD touch screen for viewing of transmitted images. It can store up to 20 hours of high-quality MPEG-2 video. It consumes 60 watts of power from a BA-5590 battery or a 12 automotive battery.

UAVs such as the SkySeer could play an important role in law enforcement. Being able to fly low and slow while looking over walls and into windows could provide SWAT teams the critical situational awareness they need. Low-cost UAVs could replace, or augment, helicopters and fixed wing aircraft that cost millions of dollars to buy, maintain and fly.

Rather than being flown by often highly paid officer-pilots, UAVs can be flown by virtually any police officer with little training needed. UAVs can fly the in fog and poor conditions when helicopters would be grounded. Their silent operation is a real plus when secrecy is required, and they could fly at very low altitudes and in residential areas where manned aircraft or helicopters can’t venture.

Their greater availability, one could be assigned to every station or even every police vehicle, they could be used to find fleeing felons, lost hikers and missing children. In a homeland security role it could be used to for 24/7 surveillance of railways, bridges, power transmission lines, water treatment and storage sites natural gas facilities, and ports and harbors. Surveillance could be done from a single central location, and one operator could control and monitor several UAVs.

Both the U.S. Border Patrol and the U.S. Forest Service have shown interest in the SkySeer. UAVs could be used to monitor crowds, athletic events and other public gatherings without drawing attention to the aircraft. Finally, their small size makes them a tiny target should criminals try to shoot them down, and if hit, an expensive aircraft and perhaps a pilot would not be lost.

One big obstacle to the use of UAVs, especially in urban areas where their application is most likely, is the lack of clear Federal Aviation Administration regulations for their use. Currently, UAV usage in urban areas must be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. Using them in an urban area requires FAA approval through a one-year “certificate of authorization” for a particular plane in a specific area. Also like any surveillance system, individual civil rights must be protected.

Bill Siuru is a retired USAF colonel. Since retiring, he has done consulting and writing. He currently is the technical editor for several publications—Diesel Progress, Green Car Journal, and Police and Security News. He has a Ph.D. in mechanical engineering. During his military career, he was a professor at West Point, the commander of the research laboratory at the Air Force Academy, and the director of engineering at Wright-Patterson AFB. He can be reached at wds@nethere.com.

Published in Law and Order, Sep 2006

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