Robotic Vehicles

15 November 2013

Technology issues related to the expanding use of remote-controlled or unmanned autonomous systems and have practical applications to Canada’s ocean and Arctic spaces were examined at the recent Unmanned Systems Canada conference. Leading thinkers and practitioners discussed development, regulation, and practical applications of underwater and aerial robotic systems. Such technology is well suited to Canada’s ­challenges of ocean governance where distances are great and cost-effective solutions to sovereignty infrastructure are required. With 9.3 million square kilometers of ocean space (much of which is in the Arctic) and 244,000 kilometers of coastline, Canada has great ­economic incentive to build on its role as a leader in the development and use of remotely controlled robotics.

A relatively young industry, there seem to be as many names as there are uses for these remotely controlled vehicles. The more common include: Unmanned Aerial Vehicle UAV; Drones; Unmanned Aircraft Systems UAS; High or Medium Altitude Long Endurance HALE / MALE; Small SUAV; Mini UAV; Microdrones; Tactical TUAV; Unmanned Combat UCAV; Autonomous or Armed Robotic Vehicle ARV; Remotely Piloted Aircraft RPA; and, advances in Solar Power have now created the SPUAV.

Naming conventions aside, remotely controlled systems provide a variety of practical, cost-effective solutions for the collection of information. Over time, the cost of these systems have decreased while their dependability has improved. In both military and police use, they have proven to be force multipliers that assist in obtaining a wide spectrum of information. A key advantage is the ability to fuse and share data among a variety of users. For example, they can be used for pollution surveillance, examining both the trajectory of oil spills as well as identifying sensitive marine ecosystems and wildlife that may be affected by an oil spill in a continuous and persistent fashion. Small, tactical remotely controlled vehicles can be launched from land or from a sea vessel, increasing the information to a commander tasked with handling a Marine emergency in real-time – all of which leads to better and more timely decisions. UAVs can incorporate a variety of sensors to accommodate a broad spectrum information collection, and have the ability to provide persistent (continuous) coverage in real-time.

That said, the application and use of robotic vehicles for federal requirements cannot be considered in isolation from other ocean management options such as radar, AIS (automatic identification systems), and satellite imaging from land, sea and space-based assets.

In the past, the only way to acquire real-time marine domain information was to make use of air assets such as fixed wing or helicopters. These are costly and, due to the human dimension, involve rest periods. In other words, continuous coverage could require numerous teams on-site. Transit time to and from landing facilities is also a cost and time factor. In remote locations, often the use of aircraft is restricted due to fuel and landing facilities, especially when it comes to fixed wing operations. This is especially true in Canada’s Arctic, where there are limited airfields.

Unmanned systems can now handle many of the requirements currently satisfied by air assets (and probably more). Even the smallest UAVs now have the ability to provide streaming data collected from a variety of sensors. From a practical standpoint, optical sensors on board an SUAV provide incredible amounts of information to the decision-maker. Just a few short years ago this type of information collection would not have been believed.

One example of the practical application of remotely piloted aerial vehicles, is the Royal Canadian Navy’s use of tactical UAVs while deployed on missions in the Indian Ocean, Arabian Gulf and Mediterranean Sea. These aerial robots provide real-time information that has proved critically important for drug interdiction and piracy countermeasures. One of the advantages is the unseen nature of the small aerial vehicles. With minimal modification to the vessel, they can easily be launched from navy ships.

ING Robotic Aviation, Canada’s leader in SUAVs, has deployed technical staff to operate these vehicles from Canadian warships for the past two years. In a time of shrinking budgets, this is a cost-effective force multiplier offering increased capability. The successful results in drug seizures (now at about $1.5 billion dollars) speak for themselves.

Considering Canada’s geographical challenges, we need to look at unique partnerships when it comes to new and emerging technologies. Robotic vehicles are clearly going to be a critically important tool for protection of sovereignty infrastructure in Canada’s Arctic and ocean spaces.

K. Joseph Spears, maritime counsel at Straith Litigation Chambers, has a particular interest in ocean governance and maritime domain awareness.
© FrontLine Defence 2013