Scouting Out the Situation
Aeryon 'Scout' unmanned aerial surveillance units scope out danger zones.
“The Scout is targeted at the backpack of every soldier and the trunk of every police car, but the number of uses is really endless,” says Dave Kroetsch, president of Waterloo, Ontario-based Aeryon Labs. “We knew that in today’s fast-paced world, access to high quality aerial intelligence would continue to become more and more critical, so we wanted to create a portable and easy-to-use tool, able to be quickly assembled and capable of autonomous map-based navigation through a touch-screen interface.”
In a military context, one or more Scouts can be used to keep watch over a camp perimeter, fly reconnoitre missions or help survey disaster damage. Civilian applications include everything from inspecting archaeological sites and taking air samples to finding lost hikers and taking crime scene photos.
In 2007, Kroetsch and other company engineers (who’d previously worked together at high-tech giants like Research in Motion, VideoLocus and PixStream) started Aeryon Labs. To develop the Scout, the team first examined hobby-grade technologies, but these quickly proved inadequate.
“We then started from the ground up, building every piece of the Scout – from the camera to the software – to the highest specifications,” notes Kroetsch. “So, while it may appear at a quick glance to have a hobby platform, it’s a wholly professional tool with several independent computer systems, industrial-grade parts and vertical take-off and landing.”
Using the touch-screen, users point on the map and the system takes care of the rest, Kroetsch explains. “During the mission, if you want to investigate off the pre-planned flight path, you can direct the Scout simply by clicking on the map.”
The system can also be used for real-time map generation. And sensing technology payloads such as a high-resolution digital video camera, thermal imager and microphones can be swapped within seconds. The digital network is encrypted and data can be streamed to the command center or to wireless devices such as smart phones.
“The operator can also set up no-fly zones and maximum flight ranges,” says Kroetsch. “We quote a range of between 1 to 3 km, depending on the antennae location and obstacles that might be between them.”
Automated pre-flight checks and self-calibration notify the user of damaged parts or low battery levels. In addition, the unit’s intelligent fault-handling allows it to react as directed (to situations such as communications loss or winds exceeding pre-set thresholds) by flying home, landing instantly or going into hover-and-wait mode. Designing a craft that could capture high quality images in a wide range of operating conditions was one of the biggest engineering challenges, says Kroetsch.
“We created the lightweight camera and the 2-axis computer-controlled gimbal which keeps it stabilized as it looks to the side or directly down to the ground,” he notes. “Things that fly always vibrate and to make pictures and video look good, we ended up building a suspension system similar to that of radio studio microphones.”
With only four moving parts – the four electric motors driving the propellers – the Scout is extremely quiet. The entire system fits into a small case and is snapped together.
“The tool-less assembly is key, not only for quick deployment and packing up, but for easy repair or replacement of damaged parts,” says Kroetsch. “It took a lot of work to develop a system that would allow the legs, battery and camera to snap together and also disassemble during a crash without breaking.”
Keeping the total weight to 2.5 pounds also involved “a lot of hard work,” says Kroetsch. “We wanted a machine that was easy to manufacture, lightweight and rugged – often competing goals. Rugged items are typically thick-walled and heavy – and the heavier something is, the less time it will fly.”
Lightweight glass and carbon fibre plastics were the answer. Although the team has found answers to basic design questions, exciting challenges still lie ahead. “We receive requests every day for uses we’ve never thought of,” says Kroetsch.
Treena Hein is an Ottawa-based freelance writer