Unmanned systems: Underwater robot reef protector, U.S. Navy’s carrier-based UAS, unmanned traffic management

In this week’s roundup from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), which highlights some of the latest news and headlines in unmanned vehicles and robotics, learn about a collaboration between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Google and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation on the development of an underwater autonomous robot used to help protect the Great Barrier Reef. Additionally, learn about the U.S. Navy’s forthcoming carrier-based unmanned aircraft and a partnership aimed at enhanced unmanned traffic management capabilities.

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In this week’s roundup from the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International(AUVSI), which highlights some of the latest news and headlines in unmanned vehicles and robotics,learn about a collaboration between the Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Google and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation on the development of an underwater autonomous robot used to help protect the Great Barrier Reef. Additionally, learn about the U.S. Navy’s forthcoming carrier-based unmanned aircraft and a partnership aimed at enhanced unmanned traffic management capabilities.

Queensland University of Technology and others collaborate to develop underwater robot reef protector

The Queensland University of Technology (QUT), Google and the Great Barrier Reef Foundation have collaborated to develop an underwater drone that can not only keep watch on reef health, but also accurately identify and inject the crown-of-thorns starfish, which can be especially dangerous.

Known as RangerBot, the underwater robotic system is ready to be tested on the Great Barrier Reef.

RangerBot can "see" underwater thanks to its high-tech vision system. Operated using a smart tablet, RangerBot won the 2016 Google Impact Challenge People’s Choice prize, allowing QUT roboticists to develop innovative robotics technology into a real-life reef protector.

After undergoing nearly two years of research, development and testing, RangerBot "is now ready to be put through its paces by those working to monitor and protect the Reef," according to QUT Professor Matthew Dunbabin.

"RangerBot is the world’s first underwater robotic system designed specifically for coral reef environments, using only robot-vision for real-time navigation, obstacle avoidance and complex science missions," Professor Dunbabin explains.

"This multifunction ocean drone can monitor a wide range of issues facing coral reefs including coral bleaching, water quality, pest species, pollution and siltation. It can help to map expansive underwater areas at scales not previously possible, making it a valuable tool for reef research and management."

RangerBot has a variety of capabilities, Dunbabin says, including its ability to stay under water almost three times longer than a human diver, gather more data, and operate in all conditions and at all times of the day or night, including where it may not be safe for a human diver.

Fitted with computer vision to see where it’s going and avoid obstacles, RangerBot can also move in any direction thanks to its multiple thrusters.

Additionally, RangerBot has been "trained" to detect crown-of-thorns starfish in a similar fashion to how people learn to differentiate between different forms of sea life. The robotic system uses real time computer vision processed on board it to identify these deadly starfish with 99.4% accuracy.

"Once the identification is confirmed, RangerBot can instigate an injection which is fatal for the crown-of-thorns starfish, but doesn’t affect anything else on the reef," Dunbabin says.

In 2016, the Great Barrier Reef Foundation teamed up with QUT roboticists Professor Matthew Dunbabin and Dr Feras Dayoub to enter the Google Impact Challenge. After winning the People’s Choice prize, the entities secured $750,000 to take the project to the next level.

"We’re thrilled to see RangerBot come to fruition because this project is about giving those looking after our coral reefs the tools they need to protect them," Great Barrier Reef Foundation Managing Director Anna Marsden says.

"Combining the expertise of innovators like Google and QUT, this project is a great example of harnessing technology to benefit the Reef."

Marsden says that more than a billion people depend on coral reefs for their food and livelihood, so these are the people who will be the most affected if those important ecosystems are not protected.

"This project and partnership with QUT and Google is about putting these cost-effective, flexible and readily deployable ‘drones of the sea’ into the hands of the people at the front line of looking after and managing our coral reefs, as extra ‘hands and eyes’ to manage those critical environments," Marsden says.

"Even though the Great Barrier Reef is internationally acknowledged as the best managed reef globally, due to its size and complexity, effective management is a mammoth and expensive task. RangerBot has the potential to revolutionize the way we manage our oceans and is an important tool to have at our disposal in the quest to save our coral reefs."

With photo: Boeing’s MQ-25 unmanned aerial refueler

Boeing to build U.S. Navy's first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft

On Aug. 30, the U.S. Navy awarded Boeing an $805 million contract to build the Navy’s first operational carrier-based unmanned aircraft, the MQ-25 aerial refueler, selecting the company over bids from Lockheed Martin and General Atomics.

Boeing was awarded the engineering and manufacturing development contract to provide an initial four aircraft.

"As a company, we made an investment in both our team and in an unmanned aircraft system that meets the U.S. Navy’s refueling requirements," says Leanne Caret, president and CEO, Boeing Defense, Space & Security.

"The fact that we’re already preparing for first flight is thanks to an outstanding team who understands the Navy and their need to have this important asset on carrier decks around the world."

Designed to provide the U.S. Navy with a "much-needed" refueling capability, the MQ-25 Stingray will extend the range of deployed Boeing F/A-18 Super Hornet, Boeing EA-18G Growler, and Lockheed Martin F-35C aircraft, thus allowing for better use of combat strike fighters.

Additionally, MQ-25 will also seamlessly integrate with a carrier’s catapult and launch and recovery systems.

"This is an historic day," says Chief of Naval Operations Adm. John Richardson. "We will look back on this day and recognize that this event represents a dramatic shift in the way we define warfighting requirements, work with industry, integrate unmanned and manned aircraft, and improve the lethality of the airwing — all at relevant speed."

NUAIR Alliance partners with Unifly to provide enhanced UTM capabilities

The Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research Alliance (NUAIR Alliance) and Griffiss International Airport have partnered with Unifly to provide enhanced unmanned traffic management (UTM) capabilitiesfor the New York UAS Test Site's 50-mile UTM Corridor currently being constructed.

Once it establishes a presence in Central New York, Unifly will deploy its software platform and support traffic management testing.

Working with NUAIR, Unifly will enable enhancements to test beyond visual line of site (BVLOS) systems. The ultimate goal is to safely integrate UAS into the nation’s airspace.

"This new partnership will provide the critical tools needed for beyond visual line of site testing; capabilities not found at any other test site in the nation," says Major General Marke F. "Hoot" Gibson (ret), chief executive officer of the NUAIR Alliance.

"It also shows that this region is able to lead the industry and attract partners from across the globe due to investments being made by New York state. We look forward to working with Unifly and deploying this industry-leading technology in coming months, and taking our capabilities to a new level."

This announcement builds on the $30 million investment to develop the 50-mile flight traffic management system between Syracuse and Griffiss International Airport in Rome, New York, in an effort to ultimately advance the UAS industry in Central New York as part of the CNY Rising initiative.

"We look forward to adding this world-class company to the team of partners leading the way in the development of the first-in-the-nation UAS corridor in Upstate New York," says Empire State Development President, CEO & Commissioner Howard Zemsky.

"The State is making strategic investments to ensure that we remain at the forefront of a burgeoning UAS industry that is growing jobs and strengthening our economy."

Unifly’s software applications facilitate UAS traffic in very-low-altitude airspace. The company’s tools let operators know where it is safe and legal to fly, while allowing authorities and other aviation stakeholders to track traffic and manage airspace.

With rules and situations often being complex, Unifly’s system can inform users of these rules and situations in a user-friendly way, and it can also provide validation for a given flight and location. The system also parses the underlying rules and real-time information to give operators a clear answer, and it can notify official entities about flights and allow them to take action if required.

"This partnership presents a unique opportunity to share Unifly’s proven UTM technology and experience with NUAIR," says Marc Kegelaers, CEO of Unifly. "The safe integration of drones into the general airspace is a universal topic today. The NUAIR Operation Center is the first test site that has had the vision to include international partners in their global alliance to successfully tackle these global challenges."

View more information on the AUVSI.

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