August 31, 2011: A U.S. firm recently conducted a successful test of UAV swarming software. In practical terms, this is flight control and search software that enables two or more UAVs to organize and carry out the most efficient search of an area, once ordered to do so by an operator who controls all of them. Two Scan Eagle UAVs were used for the test. In many ways, this was the best UAV for this kind of test.
For the past seven years, the U.S. Navy and Marine Corps have been using and perfecting this lightweight UAV, equipped with high resolution day and night video cameras. Scan Eagle was originally designed to assist for fishing boats finding schools of tuna. Over the last eight years, Scan Eagle UAVs have spent over 23,000 hours in the air. About two thirds of this was for U.S. Marine Corps units. But the navy was also encouraged by its tests, enough so to equip ships operating off the Somali coast, to fight piracy.
The ScanEagle UAV weighs 18 kg (40 pounds), has a three meter (ten foot) wingspan and uses a new video technology (PixonVision), which provides greater resolution than other video cameras. This makes it easier for the UAV, flying over the ocean, to spot the small speed boats that the pirates use to stalk, attack and board merchant ships.
ScanEagle can stay in the air for up to 15 hours per flight, and fly as high as 5,200 meters (16,000 feet). The aircraft carries an optical system that is stabilized to keep the cameras focused on an object while the UAV moves. The UAV can operate at least a hundred kilometers from the controller. The ScanEagle is launched from a catapult and landed via a wing hook that catches a rope hanging from a fifty foot pole. This makes it possible to operate the UAV from the helicopter pad on the stern (rear) of a warship. Each ScanEagle costs about $100,000, and is still widely used by commercial fishing, ocean survey and research ships.
The swarming technology also has commercial applications, for any situation in which you want a land or sea area searched quickly and thoroughly using UAVs. But the military is particularly in need of this new tech, as there are often a number of different UAVs in an area, and the swarm tech enables all these UAVs to quickly participate in an automated search, where the strengths and limitations of each UAV are taken into account.