David Willems discusses the opportunities for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to become the go-to technologies to deal with crisis situations from humanitarian relief to piracy at sea

The dynamic UAV market covers a spectrum of applications in the defence, commercial, and homeland security sectors and according to industry researchers, is forecast to be worth US$14.9 billion by 2020.

The security and surveillance role of UAVs have become the latest tool deployed against the murky world of organised criminal activity, where some smart smugglers have overcome a range of strategies deployed by concerned Governments and agencies including the use of ground based radar systems. These ‘next generation criminals’ have developed their own methods to identify and thwart or avoid any detection during the commission of their illegal activities. They have been successfully able to transport their goods in bulk whilst entirely evading the vision of radar systems, remain

The problem here lies within trying to catch out determined individuals or gangs on land or sea using grounded technologies. Most people involved in such activities are well aware of the patch or region within which they operate, so further advanced capabilities are required for the authorities to stay one step ahead. That brings in the use of aerial surveillance and specifically UAVs. So for example, the SKELDAR V-200 was successfully trialled by the Spanish Navy in an antipiracy operation across the Indian Ocean, as well as within the anti-piracy mission ATALANTA (EU NAVFOR) off the coast of Somalia.

According to Ian Millen, Chief Operating Officer, Dryad Maritime: “The first three months of 2016 have visibly demonstrated the dynamic nature of maritime crime and how effective action to combat it can turn the tide in favour of the good guys. There are some welcome causes for optimism in certain regions, notably the Indian Ocean where Somali piracy remains broadly contained, and in Southeast Asia where we have seen a remarkable turnaround in a little over six months to deliver our lowest first quarter figures in a decade. In other areas, such as the Gulf of Guinea, the picture is a less positive one, with kidnap of crew for ransom rampant off the Niger Delta.”

Remotely piloted aircraft systems (RPAS) – to more aptly describe the bundle of services such as aircraft, ground stations and payload accessories – are some of the most tactical, accurate and covert technologies when it comes to surveillance. Where rotary unmanned helicopters are able to hover in the air for hours undetected, they can search targeted personnel and devices in real time. For long perimeter and coverage of vast areas, such as the Pacific, such operations can be handled by seaborne VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) aircraft or ground based fixed wing UAVs with a high endurance of 12+ hours. Operated by ground control stations (GCS), they can be easily assembled and operated by direct commands, providing live crucial data. A number of manufacturers offer versions, however UMS SKELDAR is unique as Europe’s only provider of fixed wing and rotary platforms with various payload capabilities.

Deploying aerial systems to survey the border and active regions eliminates a great majority of the risks involved with ground patrols and is far more efficient, covering infinitely more ground in a day than is possible by current methods. With most of the illegal activity taking place at night, the platforms are able to provide unmatched support and direction to agents on the ground.

In the maritime arena, the battle between smugglers and the authorities means that UAV systems themselves are being targeted and commandeered. Some criminal groups are being able to use their own methods to spot UAV systems tracking them and then, in some cases, taking them down to discover any intelligence for their benefit or even destroying the platform altogether.

The use of aerial systems has recently expanded beyond applications deployed by defence forces. Even though the issues of military grade surveillance present a different threat to trafficking, wild life conservation and illegal logging, border security agencies are adopting aerial methods to protect the national security threat these issues pose. Smaller systems are more effective in fulfilling tasks for such applications due to their cheaper and ergonomic bearings.

To combat the global issue of wildlife trafficking, the UN and EU have pushed for the initiatives such as the Wildlife Conservation Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) Challenge (wcUAVc) and TRACE (Trafficking as A Criminal Enterprise) to develop innovation and invention in the design of unmanned aircraft to assist with counter poaching. Using the integration of sensors, embedded systems, and communications in a robust and high endurance aircraft, its systems are able to detect and better prevent the illicit trafficking of people, drugs and endangered species. These aircraft are much more ergonomic than those employed in military applications, but effective in their operations to alert Park Rangers of any unwelcoming activity.

Well documented across the world is the current refugee and migrant crisis, accompanied by the now daily tragic images of thousands fleeing their country across the deadliest borders and seas. UAVs have been especially instrumental as a key constituent in rescuing and saving lives of people crossing the Mediterranean. The Migrant Offshore Aid Station (MOAS) specialises in helping migrants at sea after several catastrophes in the Mediterranean. They offer a solution beyond navy systems, as they are able to operate at night and under treacherous conditions at sea. Real time infrared video sent to GCS is able to identify the type of distressed vessels and any risks involved. With their high transit speed, Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS) systems react faster when investigating contacts that may require emergency support. The system would send a report back to the ground station with the positioning of the boat, for MOAS to send a rescue team. This organisation re-deployed the MY Phoenix to the Bay of Bengal and the Andaman Sea. From January to May 2016 the vessel monitored and assisted with rescues along this southeast Asian sea route.

Refugees and migrants travel 1500 nautical miles south from the bay to find hope and jobs in Malaysia. Many of these people are lured aboard trawlers and held for ransom. In some cases, when they make landfall, they are held again for ransom. The Andaman route generates numerous migrant fatalities resulting from brutal conditions and murders at sea and on land.

Ever since the US introduced aerial reconnaissance in 1913 in pursuit of Pancho Villa (largely unsuccessful due to technical difficulties and poor weather), recent developments in UAV technology have made it cheaper and easier to utilise them and gradually will start to see them becoming more commonplace in industries such as anti-piracy and security operations.

David Willems is Global Business Development Director at UMS SKELDAR. As intelligence surveillance and reconnaissance leaders, UMS SKELDAR are drafted in to provide unique solutions to any issues arising from surveillance. Customer contracts of the SKELDAR V-200 include military deployment with the Spanish Navy across the Indian Ocean and the anti-piracy mission ATALANTA (EU NAVFOR) as well as civilian use for Power line work with Norwegian UAS service provider Nordic Unmanned.