Chile Modifies Drone to Communicate with Isolated Areas
By Julieta Pelcastre/Diálogo January 26, 2017A team of students from the Chilean Naval Polytechnic Academy modified an unmanned aerial vehicle, or drone, to function as a satellite communications link to reach areas that are hard to access or which have been hit by natural disasters. The initiative is the result of Project Cóndor. According to a Chilean Navy press release from December 24, 2016, the purpose of the plan is to establish an aerial communications bridge based on a platform designed to link portable communications equipment on different frequencies. Project Cóndor was born when the beach in Socos de Tongoy, Coquimbo, west central Chile, disappeared after the tsunami of September of 2015. The tsunami severed communications with security committee personnel for a few hours, preventing the command-and-control unit from directing the response-and-rescue operation in the affected region. “Faced with this challenge, I decided to look for an alternative technology – a drone swarm that could work simultaneously with IP [Internet Protocol] technology. This way the authorities don’t have to wait for a [reconnaissance] plane to pass before linking up and continuing their natural disaster work, like in Tongoy,” Ensign Nicolás Montes, a student of electronic naval engineering at the Naval Polytechnic Academy and Project Cóndor leader told Diálogo. According to the Chilean Navy, the drone model chosen by the four students can fly between hills and in ravines without much difficulty. This more than doubles the normal operating range of commercially available portable equipment and eliminates the lack of visual communication, which is a limitation of VHF and UHF equipment. The hexacopter uses batteries with four cells in series, has a flight range of 20 minutes, and can fly for up to 4 kilometers in that time frame. It has a maximum speed of 25 meters per second and can return to its takeoff point when the battery is low. Its communications system has a range of 3 kilometers without a bridge and eight with it. It also can carry the almost 700-gram weight of the telecommunications module without any problems. Chile has faced severe flooding, forest fires, volcanic eruptions, earthquakes, and tsunamis throughout its history. “All of these disasters have contributed to the development of state-of-the-art technology to provide solutions for emerging needs,” engineer Carlos Escobar Zepeda, director of the Technology Center of the School of Engineering at San Sebastián University, Chile, said to Diálogo. “In this sense, the drone can be very useful to provide communication to isolated areas or when catastrophes leave conventional communications channels without a signal,” Ensign Montes added. “One of the most important factors in almost all emergencies is communication. Thanks to that, the armed forces and other governmental institutions can act quickly and in a coordinated and effective manner.” “It is not so crazy to think that communications during emergencies could be taken over by drones by simulating what a satellite does around the planet,” Escobar added. “It will be essential to have equipment with that kind of versatility.” The Chilean Navy will be able to use this new communications tool in UHF transmissions between warships. The use of drones will allow for extending the communication range among ships, increasing the tactical monitoring area, reducing enemy detection capacity, and maintaining the navigation capacity of the group. “Drones are very economical. Since they don’t need a pilot, their cost is reduced significantly, and they do not put the lives of troops at risk during their missions,” said Escobar. “The use of drones is increasing and their uses are becoming more and more diverse.” Starting in March, the young participants will direct their efforts towards modifying fixed-wing devices and aerostats with much greater autonomy, in addition to the drone swarm. “When we achieve the culmination of Project Cóndor at the end of 2017, it will be a great result for our institution,” Ensign Montes said. Project Cóndor could make a great contribution to the country, both in the Armed Forces and private sector. “This type of aircraft, which is becoming smaller and smaller, more and more versatile with very powerful cameras, and even quieter than before, has changed the way that government and private-sector institutions carry out their work,” Escobar said. Drones have served many different functions, including controlling contraband smuggling; illegal immigration and drug trafficking in Northern Chile; and basic, close-range reconnaissance and surveillance. They also have helped to increase productivity, reduce costs in the mining and agriculture sectors, and survey wooded areas prone to fire, as well as to establish contingency or security plans in those areas. In addition, drones can function as tools for the real estate industry, the media, and for covering sports events. “Thanks to the support of the Naval Polytechnic Academy, several national-level institutions are interested in Project Cóndor. Developing technology is very important for the Chilean Navy,” concluded Ensign Montes.