Clear Skies

UAV Vision

Unmanned aerial vehicles – UAVs – are proving extremely popular right now. Unless, of course, you are the authorities, because many different arms of the law are trying to restrict their use for reasons of safety, privacy or even security…

One thing is certain. The uses to which these small, remote-controlled airplanes (both fixed wing and rotary) are being put are multiplying every day. Although care is needed to ensure public safety and safeguard individual rights to privacy, the future for this new vehicle industry is bright – both at home and overseas.

The geography of Australia lends itself perfectly to both the development and deployment of these vehicles, which should by no means be regarded as toys. Apart from obvious surveillance work, they can be used to look for lost bushwalkers, prospect for new mineral wealth and even round up stock on a remote cattle station. Their uses in mining have only just begun to be explored, though, and one company in New South Wales is eager to add this industry to its customer profile.

UAV Vision is a bit different – it’s not your regular UAV constructor, because this small operator specialises in making cameras for the planes themselves. It was started up by a Brit, Mike Bailey, in 2006, and at first the company built UAV and gimbal technology. But in recent times, UAV Vision has decided to specialise in building gimbals only and has dedicated a lot of its R&D to the building of high quality, low size, weight and power, (SWaP) gimbal systems. At present there are 15 staff members at the company’s Port Macquarie facility, all of them dedicated to a culture of innovation, excellence and customer service.

Mike spent more than five years at Hovercam Ltd in the UK as a project design and development engineer. In this role he was responsible for the design of a number of new technologies for advanced machines, and he gained valuable experience as a professional camera operator and helicopter pilot. Following this, he formed his own company, specialising in the manufacture of turbine engines and gearboxes, UAV helicopters and film camera gimbals. This background provided Mike with the necessary skills to set up the new Australian company, specialising in the development of high quality camera gimbal payloads for manned and unmanned platforms.

“We believe that the most important aspect of a UAV is the camera and the data that the camera delivers to you. The vehicle is important because it gets you to the desired location, but the images and data are what are used to make crucial decisions about your project. That is why UAV Vision decided to focus entirely on our camera technology and to specialise in this field. Because we devote all our R&D to camera technology, we can provide specific tailor-made camera solutions that cater to our clients’ specific needs,” says the company.

Digital technology has of course changed the entire nature of cameras. A half-decent pro-am SLR today can shoot pictures of 24 megapixels, providing such clarity that you can more or less dispense with any fancy long lenses and just blow up your picture on your PC. Half or more of that pixel power is available on any decent smartphone today, so could the customer not simply tape his phone to the front of his new UAV and, as it were, take off?

Not quite so simple, says Mike. “The technical challenges revolve around finding the right balance between weight and strength, environment and budget. These gimbals operate in a harsh, rough environment with high vibration levels and having precision optics in that sort of environment is difficult to perfect.” Put simply, UAV Vision does not produce point-and-shoot cameras. “Our products differ from a point and shoot camera in that they can lock onto a target no matter what the aircraft is doing. A good example of this is when a plane is circling: the gimbal can remain completely focused on the target whereas a normal camera would not be able to do so.” These cameras can, if you like, ‘turn their heads’ like a passenger in a plane instead of simply looking in the same direction as the plane is heading.

The company believes it has struck the right balance with its products, “because we can tailor our solutions to our customer needs, our products can be used in a commercial environment (not just military), and they are developed and manufactured in Australia.” Sensors are bought in from approved suppliers; then everything is designed in-house before the cameras are manufactured and assembled within Australia.

Because most of the company’s solutions are commercially based, there are still some restrictions due to the nature of the technology (some of which is highly defence-sensitive) but they are minimal. While the company prefers to stay out of the debate over restrictions on the deployment of UAVs, it believes the civil aviation authorities are taking a more relaxed attitude in Australia compared to other countries around the world.

The cameras are built for a life in the harsh outdoors over Australian soil (and ocean). “We can deliver end to end ruggedised systems that can cater to our clients’ specific needs, including PC hardware like Panasonic Tough Book,” explains Mike. “After years of experience in the industry we have been able to develop small, light and stable systems, and our lightest gimbal weighs only 700 grams.”

Partly because it specialises so closely in the camera systems themselves, UAV Vision can offer customers customised solutions to individual application requirements – in terms of both the optical performance of the system and its housing and connections to the UAV and its electronics. Mining is just one of the sectors where the company feels it could be useful to discuss requirements with the optical specialist separately from the vehicle builder – something that might not occur to a miner. Imagery is geo referenced in real time, meaning that the cameras can provide geo coordinates in real time, useful for mapping the mines.

Other surprising areas of interest include wildlife reserves (particularly in Africa where poaching is a problem) and fire brigades. Fire brigades and police departments in Australia are in communication with the company about the use of gimbals on UAVs and manned aircraft to be used for bush fire spotting at night using IR sensors. “We would like to see the police departments consider using our ‘object tracking’ feature to follow cars or trucks instead of high speed pursuits which can turn deadly.”

UAV Vision is confident of the market’s potential for expansion in the coming years. This is based on the fact that it specialises in camera technology and has already developed some of the smallest and lightest gimbals on the market. “Also, as UAV use continues to increase and new uses are found for UAVs, we expect significant growth in the coming years,” shares Mike. A recent example of a new use for UAVs is inspecting commercial airplanes for any cracks or other externally visible problems when they approach an airport to land. “As these new ideas keep coming along, we expect growth in our business.”

What’s important here is that the customer of UAV Vision should not be solely the manufacturer of remote-controlled aircraft. According to this company, the end user of the vehicle can also benefit from getting involved in the development process.

For more information about UAV Vision, please visit http://www.uavvision.com.

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