Remotely Piloted Aircraft Payloads

Written by Kelvin Hutchinson, embedded journalist in the Australian Pilot Magazine.

Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) business owners when they first start out are lured by the prospect of an exciting new industry… aerial robotics.

Once they have got over the excitement of the purchase of two or three rather expensive RPA and start to fly them the reality of how to make money hits home.

Payloads make money. The RPAS is simply the economical delivery platform. Payloads vary depending the on the industry you choose to service. What industries need RPAS now? Who is willing to pay for it and make ongoing payments to keep you in business? Consider your options carefully.

Agriculture and livestock management, surveying, surveillance, exploration and search and rescue are expected to be the most lucrative pursuits for RPAS. All need different sensors and software processing solutions.

Sensors and cameras vary greatly and so do costs. Gimbals carry sensors and cameras and most gimbals have sophisticated technology built in to keep cameras stable during flight.

At this stage the cameras and sensors being used are lightweight, high definition, still and movie cameras that can be controlled remotely or via onboard software. Sensors include infrared, multispectral, hyperspectral and lidar devices.

Lidar is the latest and most alluring of the sensors. Lidar can 3D map an accident or crime scene in minutes assisting police, SES and fire services. Hyperspectral and Multispectral can determine the health of crops and livestock and can find minerals or even a particular type of plant in the middle of deserts or within thick mountainous regions. Infrared sensors can find animals or people at sea or in dense forests anytime day or night.

RPA fitted with gas detection sensors can fly over gas fields in minutes and report leaks back to base that can be attended to immediately by ground crews. In-ground gas pipes, like those linking the Surat Basin to Gladstone in Queensland, can be monitored by RPAS that can detect gas leaks as they pass over at 30-40knots.

Entrepreneurs are working on detecting cattle and sheep wearing National Livestock Identification System (NLIS) devices from RPAS flying 100 meters overhead. Specific data such as Latitude and Longitude as well as the ID number of the animal is then sent live to your computer … all while the farmer is sitting at home! Imagine the applications here in rural and remote Australia!

Police in most states are now using a combination of infrared and high definition cameras to check hostage situations and crime scenes before allowing police to move potentially into harms way. The military in Australia and internationally use sophisticated RPAS in war zones to undertake surveillance and precision bombing. Those RPAS are sometimes flown by pilots sitting in rooms 5000km away.

Payloads you can expect to see before long will be flotation devices that can be dropped by an RPAS to people at sea or caught by coastal rips. Hyperspectral sensors will become prolific in the agriculture sector monitoring crops over the next few years. Millions of dollars can be saved by farmers, hence profitability is improved by evaluating crops at varying stages and analyzing soils for mineral deficiencies and water logging.

State governments are planning to use RPAS more in emergency and natural disaster situations. Fire, cyclone, search and rescue and coastal surveillance are all under consideration. Rural fire services in both Queensland and New South Wales have been evaluating RPAS and various sensors for some time. Surf Life Saving Australia has been testing RPAS for remote beach surveillance and life saving activities with great success to date.

A few RPAS operators are considering establishing an organisation similar to the ‘Civil Air Patrol’ concept. This would likely attract volunteer RPAS pilots needing flight time in their logbooks to fly RPAS in emergency or search and rescue situations under the control of emergency services and police across the country. Payloads would include video cameras, hyperspectral and lidar devices that can be beamed live back to any operational headquarters in the country.

In the past five years sensors and cameras have grown in capability but at the same time reduced in size, cost and weight making them perfect for RPAS based operations.

A consideration for all RPAS operators is the fact that flying beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) is not something that operators can expect to be able to undertake until aviation authorities (CASA, FAA etc) feel the Unmanned Operator Certificate (UOC) holder and RPA Controller has a good track record in a number of areas and has systems and procedures in place that they are happy with.

These areas include… the RPA, is it equipped and suitable for BVLOS? What autopilot and fail-safe systems exist? The RPA must have professionally prepared Operations, Pilot, Maintenance and Line Maintenance manuals approved by CASA. Another area is your risk and safety procedures relevant to general operations and complex missions.

Another consideration is the fact that aviation authorities around the world are requiring BVLOS RPA to have an aircraft ‘sense-and-avoid’ solution (possibly ADSB or a Transponder for example) plus a VHF radio onboard.

Next edition we will look at what is involved in securing CASA approvals for RPAS operations.

RPA Training AcademyKelvin Hutchinson is involved in general aviation and a wide range of RPAS operations based out of Warwick Aerodrome in Queensland. Contact Kelvin at or visit the RPA webiste for information on the RPA Training Academy. 



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