Aerovel Flexrotor Unmanned Aerial System
UAS Enhances Maritime Situational Awareness
By Andy Nickerson
Looking for schools of fish in the vast oceans? Trying to wind your ship through labyrinthine ice fields in the Arctic? Doing surveys of marine mammals for a conservation mission? Conducting search and rescue at sea? Managing coastal and border protection? Chasing illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing poachers? Monitoring your offshore oil and gas infrastructure? Conducting atmospheric data collection? These scenarios are among the many marine applications for which our cutting-edge Aerovel Flexrotor UAS (unmanned aerial system) is designed.
The veteran UAS engineering team at Aerovel, led by Dr. Tad McGeer, designed Flexrotor to operate over oceans and remote areas while sending high-quality imagery to its control center. Flexrotor offers an unprecedented combination of small size, light footprint, long endurance and economy. It launches as a helicopter, transitions to wing-borne flight for efficient cruise, and then lands again as a helicopter.
Because Flexrotor is a VTOL (vertical takeoff and landing) aircraft, it can be based anywhere that has a 20-by-20-ft. area clear of obstructions. It is designed for use on icebreakers, large fishing vessels, Coast Guard vessels, Navy ships, cruise ships and large private yachts for day and night operations. A one-of-a-kind, fixed-wing aircraft, Flexrotor requires no runway and no launch and retrieval equipment. Since its inception, it was designed to operate in maritime environments off ships.
The current Mark 1 Flexrotor aircraft has 16 hr. of endurance at 45-kt. cruise speed. The forthcoming Mark 2 Flexrotor aircraft will offer ultralong endurance. Maximum weight is less than 22 kg/50 lb.
The aircraft has a 3-m wingspan when operating in fixed-wing configuration and typically operates at an altitude of 2,000 to 3,000 ft. It is propelled by a 28-cubic-cm, two-stroke engine and has a maximum range of 500 naut. mi. if operated at its maximum speed of 86 kt.
A steerable, zoomable imaging turret performs search and target tracking with a daylight or infrared camera. The standard-definition video can be downlinked to a 2-m (6-ft.) shipboard antenna over as much as 100 km, and more compact antennas can be used where less video range is required.
Easily stowed in a 2-m (6-ft.) handling box, Flexrotor quickly assembles for flight. It can be rapidly restowed in its assembly box for safe handling and compact storage within the confines of shipboard spaces.
Shipboard equipment includes data links, antennas and an operator station. The operator station combines video and telemetry from the aircraft with inputs from shipboard equipment such as radar, AIS and GPS. Installation is rapid and can be done in one to two days. The operator can, for example, command the aircraft to fly to, orbit and image a waypoint represented by a bird-radar target, or to search in its vicinity. Targets can be automatically identified and tracked, with the aircraft maneuvering and the turret pointing to keep a selected target centered in view. AIS technology can be carried by the aircraft for over-the-horizon traffic monitoring. Video imagery can be viewed in real time and/or in subsequent review, on networked displays and Wi-Fi devices throughout the ship, even smartphones. If desired, multiple aircraft can be managed from a single operator station so that several sectors can be monitored simultaneously.
The unprecedented range, endurance, economy, basing flexibility, small size and ease of use of Flexrotor provides operators with a powerful reconnaissance capability.
In November 2015, Aerovel published details of a demonstration for the U.S. Coast Guard, highlighting the ability of Flexrotor to detect boats and small objects over a wide search area of the Chesapeake Bay. This included tracking and inspection of fast boats and the transfer of command and control of the airframe between shore-based command nodes and a 45-ft. response boat. Flexrotor has also been used in colder climates, such as the Arctic.
Guiding Ships Through Arctic Ice
In summer 2016, many weeks of slow and costly slogging through ice and fog might have been in store for a workboat fleet, sent a thousand miles from the nearest port to retrieve massive anchors from mooring sites spread across the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. But the lead ship was equipped with a Flexrotor built specifically for long-range imaging reconnaissance at sea. It had been brought as an experiment, but as soon as it started flying, it turned into an essential tool. The operation lasted two weeks and was completed without incident. Flexrotor guided the fleet through the labyrinthine ice, and all of the seafloor gear was retrieved, resulting in the fleet being bound for home weeks ahead of schedule.
Video from the aircraft became the most compelling show on board, especially for the seasoned ice pilot responsible for navigating the ship to its targets. Video was also followed with keen interest by Web viewers in Alaska and the lower 48, streamed in real time through the boat’s satellite link. Occasionally the view was clouded by fast-forming fog—a common problem that, together with the cold and distance from help, makes manned-aircraft reconnaissance a daunting proposition over the Arctic. Low visibility would have put a typical manned aircraft’s crew in danger, but Flexrotor simply returned to the fog-shrouded ship, landed automatically, and waited for the skies to clear. The whole reconnaissance operation was much safer and more practical than any manned-aircraft option, and less costly.
Catching Poachers off Cocos Island
In spring 2015, as one of the first missions using Flexrotor, Aerovel went out to sea near Cocos Island, 365 naut. mi. off the Pacific coast of Costa Rica, to monitor marine protected areas and make sure there weren’t illegal poachers and shark finners in the area. The remote location makes it difficult to reach and expensive for Costa Rica’s Coast Guard to patrol.
Illegal fishing threatens endangered sea turtles, manta rays, hammerhead sharks and other protected wildlife that live within the UNESCO World Heritage Site.
The law in Cocos Island says you have to catch poachers actively fishing. Patrol boats at that time were helping but weren’t securing enough evidence to prosecute illegal fishermen in the nearly 200,000 hectares of water covered by the national park. Poachers would often spot the patrols and dump their lines before Coast Guard officers arrived.
And that’s where unmanned aircraft surveillance using an earlier version of Flexrotor came in. The trip resulted in a successful proof of concept of Flexrotor. The week-long trials in May 2015 involved day and night flights of preproduction Flexrotor aircraft from the helideck of a 51-mt (167-ft.) superyacht that was at anchor for all but one of the flights. Tests included spotting a bulk carrier detected by the yacht’s AIS.
Aerovel often partners with longstanding client and UAS operator Precision Integrated Programs, a company that has been critical in securing missions for Aerovel, including the Arctic and Cocos missions referenced above. Precision LLC provides UAS support services to government entities, prime contractors, and commercial and private customers, as well as the integration, operation and data analysis of associated sensors and payloads. This support includes all aspects of planning, training, maintenance, logistics, mission coordination and general flight operations.
Precision’s UAS operators understand that the data are the most critical element of the operation and that the aircraft must be flown in a way that maximizes the ability to collect actionable data over the specified period of time. Their mission planning process takes into account all internal and external mission objectives, and limitations of the environment and customer.
It has been gratifying for the engineering team to develop and test Flexrotor. Aerovel has a strong and experienced team that has worked together for decades on leading-edge UAS.
The aircraft has been tested in various maritime environments, including harsh Arctic and tropical conditions, and the results have been extremely positive. We look forward to putting Flexrotor to use for a variety of other clients.
Flexrotor exemplifies the future of UAS technology and represents the finest operational capability and cost to value in its class.
Andy Nickerson is the director of business development for Aerovel Corp. (http://aerovelco.com). He has been with the company for more than three years and manages all sales, marketing, channel and partnerships for the company. He has spent his entire career with cutting-edge technology start-ups in the geospatial, telematics and UAS industries. Nickerson may be reached at email@example.com.