Last month, Jaguar Land Rover revealed Project Hero, the car manufacturer’s joint effort with R&D consultancy Roke to develop a bespoke off-road vehicle for the Austrian Red Cross.
The vehicle comes complete with an autonomous unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) system to aid search and rescue missions. Internet of Business spoke with Dean Thomas, Roke’s expert on all things intelligent sensors and autonomous systems, about collaboration with Jaguar Land Rover and the drone industry in general.
Roke’s involvement in Project Hero revolves around its Autoland system. Originally funded by the Ministry of Defence, the company’s signature technology has been in development for a decade and allows UAVs to land safely, accurately and autonomously. The military applications are clear, and the development culminated in an autonomous UAV landing on a moving platform as part of a Royal Navy exercise last year.
For Project Hero, Roke’s Autoland system was adapted to fit into a small quadcopter. Jaguar Land Rover wanted to provide a number of well-equipped Land Rover Discovery vehicles to the Austrian Red Cross and an integrated, easy-to-fly drone was a key element of the solution.
Armed with a powerful off-road vehicle and the latest in aerial technology, emergency teams from the Austrian Red Cross can now access live footage from above and respond more quickly and effectively to landslides, earthquakes, floods and avalanches.
Roke’s Dean Thomas pointed out that Project Hero’s “biggest challenge was landing [the drone] on the vehicle. Roke’s technology was a perfect fit.”
Visual target: a moving vehicle
Autoland relies on a vision positioning system that enables it to perform an autonomous landing without the need for a GPS signal. Instead, it uses a visual target. In this case, that target is on the moving roof of a Land Rover Discovery. “The cameras on the aircraft match what they see to a stored version of the target and can deduce the relative position of the aircraft to the landing platform,” said Thomas. “The system updates this relative position many times a second and uses the information to drive the autopilot on the aircraft and carefully and accurately bring the aircraft to land on the platform.”
Because the previous implementation of Autoland was with a small helicopter, there were several changes that Roke needed to make. “The accuracy needed to be significantly improved,” said Thomas, “as the roof box the drone needs to land on only has around 7cm of clearance. The system also needed a very simple interface for the operator on the ground.” The result is simple enough: “Just press a button on the touchscreen display and the aircraft will take off or land.”
Emerging uses for autonomous systems
Autoland’s move into search and rescue is a logical one. Thomas also suggests law enforcement and firefighting as potential areas where the technology, combined with a drone, could save lives. “Imagine a police vehicle or fire engine equipped with such a drone,” he said. “You can arrive at the scene of an incident and have instant eyes in the air.”
But there are also alternative applications in the pipeline, including some for use indoors. “In-building navigation for autonomous vehicles is a challenge that Roke is tackling. Roke’s integrated navigation system is designed to navigate without GPS and is small enough to be fitted to a small drone. We plan to integrate this with flight control systems.”
Then, Thomas says, the company can begin to make low-cost, autonomous systems that will be used to explore buildings in search and rescue scenarios.
The delivery debate
There’s one other area that receives a lot of attention whenever the topic of autonomous systems is raised: delivery. Given that a major issue holding back widespread drone deliveries is a lack of complex but required infrastructure, could systems such as Autoland be used to simplify the process?
“Roke has in the past looked at an Autoland variant for delivery of supplies to troops and this could be applied to more consumer-focused applications,” said Thomas. “For example, Amazon could supply customers with a target to spread out in their garden and Autoland could bring the package into land very precisely.”
“Clearly there needs to be a lot of work done on the regulatory environment and safety case for this sort of mode of delivery to be a reality, but the potential is there.”
Collaboration with regulators
The regulatory environment can make it challenging for companies looking to develop drones for commercial purposes. The key for the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will always be to strike the right balance between public safety and commercial innovation. “We work closely with the CAA and have seen their regulatory framework for UAVs evolve with time. And I am sure they will continue to evolve,” said Thomas.
“The development and proving of technologies to support autonomous drones will progress hand-in-hand with the regulations, but for the time being those conducting the required R&D need to work closely with the authorities. Collaboration will be key in the development of these frameworks over time.”
Next up for Roke? Thomas suggests that the company will continue to refine its small but significant role in Project Hero, but there are bigger things quite literally on the horizon. “We are looking to work with a helicopter manufacturer to put Autoland on larger-scale helicopters,” he said.