Universities in UK, France and the Netherlands are working together with government agencies and market players on a multi-million dollar project developing a remotely piloted aircraft system for special tasks at sea
It is important to monitor movements and activities of vessels in maritime areas, especially in the Channel and Southern North-Sea. So far, police, port authorities and environmental organisations have used manned aircraft, radar systems and automatic buoys to collect these data. A new way of collecting data is the use of remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS). The low-cost and easily deployable RPAS can respond rapidly to collect (geospatial) data on an expected or unexpected event. State organisations recognised the feasibility of being able to operate more efficiently with unmanned aircraft, but did not know in advance which precise type of RPAS would be suitable for which application. The €3.7-million 3i project provides them with insight into the possibilities of RPAS for their business operations.
What is 3i?
There are a number of players from The Netherlands — REWIN West-Brabant, ROC West-Brabant/Aircraft Maintenance and Training school, Digital and Media Solutions, Politie Rotterdam Rijnmond, Havenbedrijf Rotterdam and Geo Infra. European grant project Interreg 2Seas has contributed almost 2 million euros to the project that runs until September 2014. The other part of the budget is contributed by the partners.
The goal of the project is to gain practical knowledge on RPAS operations for end users and to develop RPAS business opportunities for European SMEs. It also looks to create an open platform for research and communication in the use of RPAS for in maritime data collection.
The 3i project looks to develop application scenarios for use at sea. As Paul de Kruijf, innovation broker of Police Rotterdam-Rijnmond region, explains, it is very important for the department to monitor the berths of vessels as well as supervise the coastal lines. To survey anchorages or check dumping, the department needs to determine if an aircraft is able to fly for half an hour or for four hours or if it is capable of flying 2 km or 20 km off the coast. These needs resulted in a set of functional requirements regarding frame, fuel volume, engine, geospatial data communication and camera/sensor. The four universities which are part of the project translate all the functional demands into a technical design.
Owing to lack of clarity on which existing aircraft system satisfied the requirements, the project partners started developing their own aircraft. The two-engine prototype, produced by 3D-printing technology, was first displayed at the Annual Interreg Event in March, where it attracted much attention. The collaboration partners are now preparing for demonstrations. The Port of Rotterdam Authorities and Politie Rotterdam are working on the details for a demonstration on the coast by the Dutch Tweede Maasvlakte area. Demonstrations will follow in France and England.
“In August 2012, we completed our ‘Geo-Airflight’ pilot commissioned by PUMA (the joint venture of two contractors to expand the port of Rotterdam),” says Walter Broeders of Dutch civil engineering company Geo Infra, one of the associated partners of the 3i.
RPAS collected data on elevation models. These were compared with the existing progress elevations models of PUMA. The final results (3 Digital Elevation Models) were extensively reviewed and tested by PUMA. Partly due to the huge amount of baseline monitoring, various models were made, which gave insight into the accuracy of the elevation models.
“The pilot project has been completed. Nowadays, the Geo-Airflight is used regularly to map areas that can not be measured in the usual way. We are very glad we can use our knowledge and experience in this 3i project,” adds Broeders.
The project partners see the collaboration as a mini version of the Airbus. “Developers generally use an existing aircraft. We turned this round and started with the client requirements. What data do you need? How do we meet the functional requirement? How can we translate this into a technical design so that the development is ‘fit for purpose’?” explains Bart Remes, from MAVLAB TU Delft. And the fact that four universities are collaborating on one objective is also quite unique.
The 3i project is also incorporating many new technologies, such as touch-table operation and open-source operating-system software. Remes urges businesses to participate in the seminars for knowledge sharing. Suppliers of software, cameras, sensors or other parts are also encouraged to apply since this is an open innovation project and not bound to a product or a manufacturer.
Communicating the results of the 3i project is important. According to Remes, the RPAS sector has a collective assignment — to gain public acceptance as well as market development of this new technology for collection data.