High-Flying Innovation

High-Flying Innovation

By Dialogo
October 01, 2012

Come back home” was the command entered into the computer. Minutes later, the
“intelligent” plane was back, orbiting 150 meters above the command area, ready to
land. The pilot took manual control of the aircraft with his radio transmitter,
maneuvered it for a while and skillfully started the approach and landing procedures
for one of the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs or VANTs for its initials in Spanish)
the Mexican Navy has added to its strategic operations against organized crime.
With design and technology developed by the Mexican Secretariat of the Navy
(SEMAR, for its Spanish acronym), the first three drones were shown off in June
2012. They will help strengthen intelligence operations, boost the ability to fight
organized crime, and help the civilian population during disasters.
Twelve scientists, engineers and aeronautical experts from the Mexican Navy’s
Research and Development Institute were part of the team that participated in the
design and execution of the project, which started in December 2010 and now sets the
stage for future development of drones with greater wingspan to patrol and control
the more than 6,800 miles of Mexican coastline. For now, the project draft suggests
the manufacturing of 12 UAVs, or a larger aircraft with a wingspan of 3 to 4 meters,
eventually manufacturing a 12-meter model.

The tactical planes, whose main objective is to support the operations of the
Mexican Marines, can run on autopilot. This gives them autonomy based on
high-ranking orders and specific items within a planned mission. If the remote
control signal is lost, the aircraft returns home.
Equipped with a detachable video camera with a 36X optical zoom, and panning
and tilting capability, the aircraft transmits video and photographs to ground-based
units in real time. The information will allow tactical units to use the element of
surprise in precision-targeted operations against organized crime. “At 1,500 feet,
and given the size of the aircraft, it would be very difficult for it to be spotted
from the ground. Meanwhile, the tactical unit commander can make decisions based on
information happening at that moment, so actions are more precise,” explained the
UAV project engineer, who is research and modeling sub-director of the Mexican
Navy’s Research and Development Institute.
The information provided by the UAVs allows for instant analysis of real-time
images being displayed on the screen. Both the photos and videos captured by the
UAVs open up possibilities for a more thorough utilization of information to enrich
military intelligence. “Intelligence teams can interpret the images and identify
where there are marijuana plantations, or a vehicle’s plates, for example, and
provide important data for investigations,” the project engineer said. Equipped with
image stabilizers, the UAVs transmit information to the land station, which in turn
can broadcast it to other command posts or remote stations.

With the help of a portable computer, the analyst plans the operation and
routes from the ground and transmits them to the plane. The aircraft can be
programmed on the ground, but operators can also make in-flight changes. While the
plane is flying, modifications can be made to altitude, speed, full route, holding
points and surveillance points. The camera can also pan and zoom.
“Some specific functions include providing security to a moving convoy by
carrying out reconnaissance flights over the area the convoy will pass through.
Prior to the operation, the VANT can carry out reconnaissance flights over the area
and identify criminals and armed people on the roofs of houses and buildings, if
there are entrenched people. … These aircraft can perform this kind of activity to
support our colleagues and save lives. The ground-based command centers now have an
advantage, because the more information a commander has the greater the probability
that the right decision will be made,” the project engineer commented.
The real-time information provided by the UAVs is priceless in operations.
When the operation unit has a satellite photo with images that are 12 to 14 hours
old, the possibility that the scenario has changed from one day to the next is high;
on the other hand, the aircraft gives instant information at just the right time
during the operation. Obviously, the time it takes an enemy to climb onto a roof and
entrench themselves is just a couple of minutes, the project engineer remarked.

In a disaster, an unmanned aircraft’s aerial imagery can be used to measure
the extent of the damage. During a flood, it can show which streets are most
affected, whether there are victims on the roofs of homes, or if there are people
trapped in currents. During a forest fire, it can see where the fire is moving to
allow officials to make crucial decisions in a timely manner.
The UAVs have a wingspan of 2.4 meters, measure 1.5 meters in length, and are
made of carbon fiber and fiberglass. They operate on an electric propulsion system
and rechargeable batteries. UAV flights can last up to an hour and 20 minutes and
cover a 6.3-kilometer radius in both daytime and nighttime missions.
Officials are in the process of registering and patenting the UAV systems.
“The intellectual property of these unmanned aircraft belongs to SEMAR. We developed
the autopilot, the bionics and algorithms, the mechanical assembly, fuselage
construction, coating/lining, design, plans, dimensions here — the whole aircraft
design is ours. Of course there are components made in other countries, such as the
camera, but the VANT technology is Mexican,” said the rear admiral heading the
Mexican Navy’s Research and Development Institute. It is an unprecedented
achievement in the country’s military history.

Not a Simple Radio Control

When the Mexican Navy talks about the UAVs, they refer not only to the planes
but also to the three systems needed to operate the plane: a ground-based computer
where the aircraft is programmed; the pilot’s console; and a radio transmitter and
tower that are used when the flight covers about 6 kilometers.

All of the equipment for the plane and reception tower fits in a carrying
case. The UAVs can be operated without a formal airstrip, although they do require a
runway between 25 and 40 meters long; this can be a wide street or avenue — and
there is always the possibility of closing a road for takeoff or landing.

The Mini UAVs

Although the mini UAVs are smaller than the VANT and are not equipped with
landing gear, they are considered more tactical because they can operate in smaller
areas and do not require an airstrip to land.
The units also send standard video images to ground-based stations in real
time, but their main feature is that they can take high-resolution photos and create
photo mosaics with 44 snapshots of a specific area. This capability is considered an
invaluable tool for the reconnaissance of areas affected by natural disasters. Using
these units to “scan” areas affected by weather phenomena translates into resource
savings for the Navy because the use of manned aircraft can be reserved for rescue
operations at specific sites, avoiding manned reconnaissance flights with an
estimated cost of $800 to $900 per flight.
With 1.8-meter wingspans and 1.2-meter-long bodies, the mini UAVs have flight
autonomy of 30 minutes and can cover a 1.6-kilometer radius. They do not require an
airstrip for takeoff because they are simply propelled manually and land on soft
ground or grass.

“A mini VANT is something someone carries in a briefcase, assembles and
manually launches. If I am conducting an operation three blocks from here, I stop
here, assemble it, and launch it without needing an airstrip. I just look for a
place with an exit, prep it, activate it, launch it, operate it and then land it on
grass and recover it,” the project engineer explained. Although it has capabilities
that are similar to those of the larger VANT, it was conceived to operate with
minimal infrastructure.
So far, tactical units have ordered two mini UAVs. But as they are put in
operation the demand for these units may grow.

In the Air

The three UAV systems the Armed Forces are launching would cost about $3
million on the commercial drone market; combined with the development of in-house
skills within the Navy, the savings for the institution have been significant, the
engineer commented.
For now, SEMAR has the support of a private company where the fuselage
components of the plane are manufactured with Navy engineers integrated into a
national company.

Mexico is now part of a group of countries that is technologically poised to
build unmanned aircraft for national defense purposes.

Embryo of Development

For the past 10 years, the Mexican Navy has bet on research and has advanced
toward the development of in-house technology. The objective of the Mexican drone
program is the development of maritime patrol planes for surveillance tasks and the
effective control of the Mexican coastline, the admiral emphasized.
Now the team that developed the VANT prototypes is ready to take on new
technological challenges, ranging from the construction of 12 more systems to the
development of larger aircraft.
A 12-meter wingspan plane provides greater possibilities for surveillance and
control. It could provide stable, satellite-quality images; multiple cameras and
other sensors could be installed; a communications and maritime search network could
be developed; even complicated endeavors such as bacteriologic warfare sensors could
be developed.
“The vision is precisely to achieve a larger plane, with greater surveillance
capabilities, more reach/coverage, and which would allow, for example, monitoring
the 370-kilometer exclusive economic zone that extends past the nation’s territorial
waters. We are now laying the foundation to move in this direction,” the project
engineer said.

Is it possible to arm these planes? The possibility hasn’t been ruled out,
but structural reinforcement to hardpoints on the aircraft would have to be
considered; these changes would only be considered based on practical results and
specific needs during tactical operations.
So far, the possibilities of technological development seem unlimited to the
Mexican Navy. And for the head of the SEMAR Research and Development Institute,
these are the steps taken in the constant modernization of the Navy.
For security reasons, the name, rank and position of those who have worked on
the development of the Mexican drones are not mentioned in this article.