(November 29, 2001, Gazette)
Engineering students at Memorials Instrumentation, Control and
Automation (INCA) Centre are busy these days building an autonomous
plane. The project titled RAVEN, or Remote Aerial Vehicle for Environmental
monitoring, is a multi-purpose aerial vehicle that can be used for
locating icebergs, tracking wildlife, detecting forest fires, tracing
oil spills, and the list goes on.
Because of its versatility and low operating costs it is of big interest
to industry partners like Environment Canada and the growing offshore
oil and gas industry. For now, however, INCA is focusing on designing
the plane to locate icebergs.
INCA is developing the technology to enable RAVEN to track icebergs
and report their position back to a central station. Ajay Sancheti,
project leader, explained, The plane will fly out by itself
to an approximate area that has been identified on satellite imagery.
Once it locates the object it will take a picture and the GPS position
and send it back to the ground control station. This is the most efficient
method of determining whether or not it really is an iceberg and if
so, its exact location.
Right now icebergs are tracked with satellites. The satellite takes
an image, the image is downloaded, analyzed, and the current and wind
direction is determined. The autonomous plane will change all of this.
This plane will be able to take the data from the satellite
reading, fly out and do a search pattern around the possible area
of error, detect it very accurately and then send back, in real-time,
exactly where the iceberg is, said Lloyd Smith, an engineering
graduate student working on the project.
The plane is currently in the testing stage. It successfully completed
its first flight a few weeks ago and is now being equipped with an
autopilot device. The next phase of the project will be to switch
the plane over to autopilot after it has been launched by remote control.
The plane will then fly around in a search pattern looking for a target
that has been set up. Once it finds the target it will take a picture
and then send the image over a wireless link to a ground control station
to be identified.
Mr. Smith adds, Eventually the planes computer that we
built will be able to recognize something on the ground and do its
own image analysis. It may also be required to change its search pattern.
We want the computer to be able to communicate with the autopilot
so we can change the direction of flight if necessary, without the
user having to interface with the autopilot.
Since the plane is a prototype, it is not equipped to withstand harsh
weather conditions or fly for extended periods of time. But the project
team is already making plans to install their hardware into a plane
called Laima. Owned by Aerosonde, it was the first unmanned plane
to cross the Atlantic in a record time of 26 hours and 45 minutes
on Aug. 20, 1998.
This project, like others that are carried out at INCA, gives students
the opportunity to work in areas that have a high commercial viability.
The information that is generated is given back to the industry sponsors
or spun off and commercialized by student companies.
Building autonomous planes that can be used for surveillance
and monitoring is an area that is being developed right now. This
is a great opportunity for Memorial University to make its mark and
create technology that is both innovative and essential to the growing
offshore oil and gas industry in our province, says Mr. Sancheti.