Increased focus on the human operator key to safe Arctic UAS operations
Growing interest in the operation of unmanned air systems in extremes of cold by civilian, scientific and military users needs to be balanced with an increased focus on operator training and mission planning according to a review of lessons from zero point launch of UAS conducted by Robonic Ltd Oy of Finland.
The review, examining tactical UAS and target drones operations in deep winter and Arctic conditions, finds that technological solutions to zero point launch in extreme cold have largely been resolved but human operators remaining the weakest point in the launch cycle.
"The human operator remains a key variable for campaign and mission planning" says Juha Moisio, managing director of Robonic.
"As the use of UAS in the far latitudes expands, whether for military, commercial or scientific application, it will be critical for potential operators to focus on the training of personnel in ways appropriate to the extremes of the environment.
"Planning remains at the core of this challenge, and if approached in a disciplined and systematic way, with measured understanding of risk, Arctic skies can and will be the legitimate domain of all types of UAS."
In a paper being presented by the company this week at the AUVSI ‘Unmanned Systems North America' conference in Washington, Moisio says that "cold weather as a factor in the launch of UAS in deep winter and Arctic conditions can clear be minimized through the use of a pneumatic catapult which is designed from the outset to work under such environmental restrictions. The technology is here and ready now."
The Robonic paper is based on three decades of experience in designing, building pneumatic catapult launchers for use in extremes of cold for European and North American users. Robonic also operates its own commercial UAS test range inside the Arctic Circle with this supporting year round flight campaigns.
Moisio says that "deep winter and Arctic conditions require significantly increased levels of understanding of the environment and identification of those requisite steps that are essential to ensure smooth and safe operations. UAS operations in such environments are on the increase. Not only are the armed forces of countries in higher latitudes expanding their own UAS capabilities, but the far north itself is emerging as a distinct operational environment through changes in geo-security patterns.
"The Arctic and the far northern regions are also emerging as a key focal point for commercial and scientific application of UAS. The potential of the far northern regions to provide invaluable scientific data related to wider concerns about climate change is reflected in multinational missions using UAS as a part of their platform mix and the current initiatives by NOAA is a clear case in point. Similar scientific application of UAS are likewise being seen at the South Pole."
The extreme environments in question are characterized by average temperatures generally below 0 °C (32 F) and may fall as low as -40 °C (-40 F).
"There are high rates of snowfall and snow itself is a key landscape feature. Ice is likewise in abundance. The process of snowfall acts to deny visibility, with the extreme form of this to be found in blizzards where high volumes of snow couple with wind to close down an environment in its entirety.
"Such operational regions suffer from extremes of darkness as a direct result of their latitude. The soil is generally bound in a state of permafrost, with its stability dependent on prevailing seasonal and local climatic conditions. The environment is characterized by rapidly changing weather conditions, meaning huge variables can be experienced in very short order. Extended stability or predictability of weather patterns is not a given. All of these conditions are lasting or can last for extended periods of time, in all manner of combinations."
Direct impacts on personal and equipment are unavoidable in such conditions says Moisio. "For humans this can mean frost bite, snow blindness, lower than necessary rates of performance by health people, and a corresponding increased risk of and rate of accidents.
"For equipment this can include binding and jamming by snow and ice, fractures of components due to extreme cold and freezing of liquids.
"Such effects can occur as singular impacts or in combination with a corresponding impact on operational capabilities".
Moisio says that "machines used in deep winter or Arctic conditions have to be designed bearing the special requirements of cold in mind. Accumulation and melting of ice and snow, changes in air humidity and thermal expansion of materials are some of the basic things which need to be taken into consideration.
"This applies not just to the design of machine structures but also instrumentation and controls. Effects of protective winter clothing and the use of gloves have to be considered in the development of all human machine interfaces. For instance, control buttons must be operable with gloves on. Both, the designer and the operator have to to be familiar with operating in winter conditions. Operator training is the key in order to operate and conduct daily maintenance properly."
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