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(November 29, 2001, Gazette)

Aerial research taking off
It’s a bird, it’s a plane

Engineering students at Memorial’s 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 plane’s 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.