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Choosing the right UAV


Small UAVs are opening up a plethora of opportunities for security personnel across the globe. However, choosing the right kind of UAV could be a daunting task for many.

Throughout the world, policing organisations are challenged with balancing the collection of thorough and lasting evidence, creating accurate 3D scene reconstructions for crime and traffic departments, rapidly clearing roads and highways, performing high-risk ERT scenarios, or conducting search and rescue operations — while keeping costs within budget.

As more Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) become available, choosing the right solution can be daunting. Making the right decision is essential for policing organisations, especially since the budget for equipment purchases is typically between 5 and 15% of total budget and each department is accountable to several (internal and external) stakeholders.

Many systems require more than one operator which can add to the cost of each mission/project. Since typically law enforcement agencies are always understaffed or overworked, a system that requires a single operator can enable first responders to start flying and capturing data without waiting for the additional person to be onsite. By choosing a UAV that manages the flight and safety requirements, it also enables a single operator to focus on collecting the required images and data rather than flying the system.

It is important for UAV packaging to be portable and easy to set up. Choose a UAV that can be carried in the trunk of any vehicle, managed by a single operator, and includes a case that contains everything needed to complete the operation.

While a single UAV streaming images to the ground works well for standalone missions, the ability to distribute the information to a command centre or other decision makers allows an organisation to get the most from their investment. UAVs with network and streaming capabilities can be a benefit in surveillance and search and rescue applications when other investigators or stakeholders may be offsite.

The requirements of an operation can change quickly and the equipment being used must be able to adapt accordingly. Most UAV systems offer multiple payload options — cameras and sensors. Changing from one payload to another needs to be seamless for the operator. Choose a system that provides the ability to swap payloads in all weather conditions, and includes electronics and software that recognises the different payloads automatically. Without the ability to quickly adapt to the needs of the operation, valuable time can be lost reconfiguring/ calibrating the system after each change.

There are two basic UAV-payload designs on the market today, which provide either: a commercial camera attached on an aerial platform; or integrated custom cameras or sensors.

While the first type of system may allow for a greater choice of cameras, the only information provided is imagery — photos and video. A system with an integrated camera enables more flexibility in the type of information collected but also the images can be tagged with metadata.

Geographical metadata allows images to be stitched together into larger images of the area while ensuring that the accuracy and quality of the information is maintained. More advanced systems can also use this information for the navigation of the system, by providing current maps and repeatable flight paths of the area.

Operational environment
Accidents, emergencies and crimes can occur at any time, not just on calm, sunny days. Police and security officers, as well as emergency response teams must be ready to plan for, or react to an incident whenever it happens. Therefore, the equipment they choose must operate in a variety of weather conditions — from sunny warm days, to rain and snow, extreme temperatures and high wind.

Regional wind plots in Canada

Choosing the right solution for the applicable conditions is crucial to maximise the capabilities of the system and RoI. For example, in Vancouver, Canada, it rains approximately 165 days per year, whereas in Albuquerque, New Mexico, USA gets rainfall for approx 40 days per year.

The capabilities of a UAV to operate in a range of environmental temperatures should be considered while selecting a system. To be able to maximise the RoI by operating in all seasons and across geographies can be a benefit to any organisation with multiple departments and locations.

With any UAV, the ability to operate safely in windy conditions is a requirement. In Paris, France there are, on an average, 44 days each year where the wind exceeds 34mph (55kph). If an aerial vehicle cannot operate in this type of condition, there would be a significant loss to operations. Even in New York City winds average more than 12mph (19kph) — a UAV that cannot operate in moderate winds could have a negative impact on how often it can be used reliably in the field.

Adjusting for wind speed at flying altitude is another requirement for a UAV — not just the average wind speed, but also the strength and severity of gusts. Buildings, trees and land formations can block or reduce the effect of wind near the ground, while much higher winds are typically experienced by a UAV while it is flying — even at ‘low’ altitudes.

Also, most small UAV manufacturers publish flight times of similar duration. However, it is important to understand how the measurement was calculated. To promote longer flight times, some companies publish flight times for the aerial vehicle without a payload (camera) and under ideal conditions (e.g. no wind, at 68°F/20°C). Typically, when a payload is attached to the system, the operational the flight time can be reduced by over 50%.

Often, flight time expectations are based on the time it takes to collect the information through traditional methods. While the length of flight for small UAV is still shorter than most organisations feel they need, in real-life scenarios, many operators are surprised by the amount of information that can be gathered in as little as 20 minutes. Requesting a demonstration of a UAV operating according to your specific application is recommended in order to see the first-hand information that can be collected and the actual time that it takes.

Another flight time consideration is how quickly your data can be viewed. With many UAVs, data is stored onboard and cannot be accessed until the vehicle lands. Depending on your application, this can negate the value of long flight times, since the longer a vehicle flies; the longer it takes to gain access to the imagery.

If longer mission times or continuous surveillance of a situation is required, the option to use multiple vehicles can be a solution. Some advanced UAV platforms are designed to enable a single operator to control multiple vehicles. This capability provides continuous surveillance by having the second UAV in place while the first vehicle returns ‘home’ to replace the battery.

The safety of officers and civilians, as well as property must be considered for all equipment that is used in the field. It is important to choose a UAV platform that is designed with built-in safety features and best practice guidelines for safe operations and trouble-shooting procedures. These built-in features also enable the operator to focus on the collection of images and data with confidence that should a problem arise, he/she will be alerted by the system.

Features that support safe operation include:

  • A warning system that alerts the operator that the power source is running low, and the capability for the system to automatically fly home or land, if necessary.
  • A feedback system that determines when wind speed is excessive and if the vehicle should land at its current location or fly home.
  • The ability for the operator to set the maximum distance that the vehicle can fly. This ensures that neighbouring properties and/or civilians are not harmed and privacy is maintained, as well as maximising battery life for the application.
  • Built-in intelligent response mechanism (i.e. land immediately/return home) if communication is lost between the aerial vehicle and the operator.

The price of the UAV is only a part of the expense for an organisation; other services to include in the overall purchase include operator training, skills practice, maintenance, spare parts, repairs and system upgrades.

A touchscreen interface typically requires less training than an RC controller. If the system is not used on a regular basis, a touchscreen interface can be more intuitive and easier to remember how to control, and therefore, reduces the need for re-training and testing.


Top: Current maps can be used when determining the flight path. Below: Tablet controller with touch screen showing Aeryon MCS user interface.

When evaluating maintenance costs, a modular system can reduce the downtime of the system since only the piece requiring repair or updates is affected, especially if spare parts or equipment loans are available. With a single-body design, the whole unit is returned when repair work needs to be performed.

Predicting the future of any product is difficult, but new features and payload integration should also be considered when choosing a UAV. It is important to ensure that a system purchased today will work with new features and/or payloads as they become available. Choosing a system design that enables users to interchange and add payloads without returning the unit to the factory will also reduce shipping costs and system downtime.

Summing up
While a UAV platform must meet a number of functional and business requirements to be suitable for law enforcement and emergency response applications, there are few systems on the market that meet all the requirements mentioned above. When choosing a UAV in order to maximise RoI, ensure results and lasting evidence, the system should be lightweight, portable and easy-to-use, and offer immediate deployment, specialised imaging payloads, intuitive controls and seamless integration with industry-standard software applications.