An exclusive video of one of the speakers at the Royal Aeronautical Society’s ‘UAS Operations: Dependable, effective and efficient?’ conference – Ant Miller from the BBC who explains the global broadcasters UAS experiments. [caption id="attachment_7374" align="alignnone" width="403" caption="The BBC's iflyer UAS. (University of Southampton)."][/caption] On 19 September the Royal Aeronautical Society held a major conference entitled ‘UAS Operations: Dependable, effective and efficient?’ on the subject of unmanned air systems (UAS). Popularly called ‘drones’ by the general media, UAS have become indispensable in the past decade to military forces all over the world. However, now (as in manned aviation almost 100 years ago) new civil applications, missions and tasks are being tested and trialled for UAS – potentially opening a huge new chapter in aviation. (Indeed it was notable that two of the conference speakers were ex-RAF Reaper UAV operators – but both now working in the civil sector)  The conference heard from wide variety of presentations – from the British Army, to regulators, from companies using UAS for oil rig inspections to insurance of UAS and legal issues. In particular, the recent Duchess of Cambridge photos in the news made the legal briefing on privacy issues extremely topical. In another presentation, TV company Upper Cut Productions revealed how its ‘Octocopter’ UAS allowed it to capture stunning HD footage of migrating wildlife. One of the most interesting presentations during the conference was from Ant Miller, a research engineer at the British Broadcasting Corporation (BBC) – the world’s most respected broadcaster. In the video below, he explains how the BBC R&D department started its own UAS trials, and what it found out during the tests. Its fixed-wing UAS, developed with the help of the University of Southampton ,was created with the aspiration of using it to help cover a complex outdoor broadcasting event like the Olympic Torch relay. Named iflyer by a Blue Peter competition, the project saw the BBC R&D department become essentially an aerospace systems integrator.  Iflyer itself is now grounded, but Miller believes that as new broadcasting tool, the UAS will be back one day. Watch the exclusive video below:    

John SimDrone reporting?

[caption id="attachment_7375" align="alignnone" width="375" caption=""We're filming for Droneton Abbey" (University of Southampton)"][/caption] The video above then shows the interest within major media organisations for the kind of capabilities a UAS could bring, for example in providing aerial camera footage  to help cover large events such as the Olympics, music festivals like Glastonbury, or breaking news such as protests or demonstrations. Indeed, Miller explains that the UAS would not replace aerial helicopter footage, but really the long boom camera mounts that give elevated shots in drama and other TV series. Miller also details an additional role that UAS could provide – that of airborne TV relay for grounmd cameras, eliminating lots of cables and vans on the ground. However, could UAS use by news broadcasters go even further? Could, for example, a BBC/CNN/Al Jazeera UAS be used to report from denied areas, to document atrocities – for example in Syria? On the face of it, this seems a promising plan to sidestep government bans on reporters to bring the suffering of civilians to the world's attention. But there are some drawbacks, Firstly - is the size of the UAS and range needed. To penetrate a denied area would suggest a long-range UAS, flown from outside the borders. Yet the news editor would most be interested in footage that was closer in, t0 emphasise the human aspect – like what a VTOL UAS carrying a HD camera might provide. Secondly, is that while journalists do smuggle themselves inside restricted areas – using a UAS might indicate a significant escalation and perhaps even an act of war. Would a ‘news’ UAS flown over a Iranian suspected nuclear facility be recognised as a) from the media and b) unarmed? Thirdly is that the UAS would have to survive air defences, AAA and fighters from the nation’s airspace it was attempting to penetrate. At the moment UAS are easy meat for SAMs and fighters, and the only way around this would be stealth and self-defence systems –requiring a much more expensive air vehicle only just being developed for the military. Finally there is one other factor missed by many commentators. The denied country will certainly not want to co-ordinate its airspace with nosey news UAS.  That means that the news organisation will have to run the risk of airborne collisions. As the recent example of Syrian helicopter hitting a civil airliner with 200 people on board, the consequences could be extremely serious. However important the story, would a media organisation really risk the lives of innocents in the air or on the ground, by entering controlled airspace and relying on sheer odds to avoid hitting another aircraft?

Summary

That said, the coming civil UAS revolution means that many news and media organisations can be expected one day, to adopt and embrace UAS as part of their outside broadcast and mobile camera options. A weapon of war looks set to become an essential broadcasting  tool.   To order conference proceedings, click here.

Tim Robinson
28 September 2012