Aerovironment testing potential for UAVs to re-establish communications in event of disasters


May 24, 2012

The Shrike VTOL UAV, which is a member of Aerovironment's family of small UAVs that the company will demonstrate for creating an airborne communication relay (Photo: AeroVironment, Inc.)

The Shrike VTOL UAV, which is a member of Aerovironment's family of small UAVs that the company will demonstrate for creating an airborne communication relay (Photo: AeroVironment, Inc.)

While UAV’s continue to reshape the theater of war, they are also finding more and more non-military applications, from gathering atmospheric data to delivering supplies to remote villages. Now Aerovironment is examining the potential for its UAVs to rapidly re-establish communications when existing communications networks are knocked out following a natural or man-made disaster.

Aerovironment will demonstrate using its family of portable, hand-launched small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) for creating an airborne communication relay. The individual aircraft, which include the RQ-11B Raven, Wasp AE, RQ-20A Puma and Shrike VTOL, are small enough to be transported in a backpack or vehicle and can be in the air in less than five minutes. Depending on the model, the unmanned aircraft, which are operated via a hand-held control unit, can fly for between 45 minutes and two hours.

The demonstrations are being conducted for the Federal Communications Commission’s (FCC) Deployable Aerial Communications Architecture (DACA) Notice of Inquiry (NOI) proceeding, which aims to ensure communications can be restored rapidly in the event of a disaster.

To enable hand-held public safety and emergency response radios to communicate with one another over long distances and beyond-line-of-sight without the need for ground-based antennas or repeaters, the unmanned aircraft will carry off-the-shelf communication relay equipment. This is in addition to Aerovironment’s Digital Data Link (DDL) component that enables encrypted, beyond-line-of-sight voice, video, data and text communication through each unmanned air vehicle and ground station.

“AeroVironment’s small UAS have proven themselves to be reliable, rugged, and cost-effective lifesaving tools for troops on the frontline,” said Roy Minson, AeroVironment senior vice president and general manager of Unmanned Aircraft Systems. “We are seeing only the beginning of the utility these tools can deliver to military and non-military users. By demonstrating how small UAS can also provide instant communications capabilities we hope to help the FCC and industry envision valuable new applications of our technology to preserve lives, property and resources.”

Source: Aerovironment

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Darren Quick Darren's love of technology started in primary school with a Nintendo Game & Watch Donkey Kong (still functioning) and a Commodore VIC 20 computer (not still functioning). In high school he upgraded to a 286 PC, and he's been following Moore's law ever since. This love of technology continued through a number of university courses and crappy jobs until 2008, when his interests found a home at Gizmag. All articles by Darren Quick

A tethered weather balloon(s) would make much more sense.


This is a really cool idea using a VTOL UAV as a temporary antenna platform to get the antenna up to a usable height above ground for "line of sight" communications.

"Air time" is limited by the battery capacity though.

Could we go one step further and make the device "tethered" by means of a power wire or cable that is lightweight and would supply enough electrical power to run both the electronics packages and also have enough for the lift motors.

In theory it could stay up there indefinitely or until power has been removed.

I was thinking that the only way to get that much power up a thin power wire is by using AC voltage at 240 or 480 Volts at a few amps. This would also allow the motors to be very small in size and also brush less for a good thrust to weight ratio of the whole platform. The motors could be totally sealed units to keep moisture and rain out of them. No bulky DC powered components would be needed at all.

Having it tethered with either a thin power cable or coaxial cable , you would never have to worry about it being lost buy a strong wind blowing it away in hover mode.

Actually it could be guyed with 3 very small wires and as long as the wires were kept taught by the upwards thrust of the motors ,it would be pretty much stationary and stay in the same place no matter what the winds are doing or which direction they are blowing from. Using this method you would not need to actually control its position at all ,just the amount of thrust to the lift motors to make it go up.

Jim Andrews

@Warhead, Great idea, yes indeed I agree 100% Using a UAV sounds like an unneeded use of expensive technology because we can, like all the crap on new cars, they are ignoring KISS. Bestust, Bill

Bill Bennett

As much as I've admired Paul Macready and Aerovironment ever since they burst into the public consciousness with the Gossamer Condor, I have to agree that this is far from an optimal solution. A small aerostat would have virtually unlimited endurance, especially if a small, lightweight wind turbine was mounted on it to generate power. Obviously, not much power is required for the mission if the UAV can accomplish it for two hours while still using most of its battery power to stay aloft. At high altitude where wind speeds are higher, the turbine would be able to generate far more power for communications than these UAVs consume for all their systems. An aerostat would be just as easy if not easier to launch and retrieve, can be just as portable when deflated, and would be far more fail-tolerant than a quadracopter.


I agree... even as a UAV user, a balloon would make more sense in this context!

As soon as you start to talk about tethers, a balloon makes more sense as it isn't continuously using energy to generate lift. In almost any conditions that you can use a static UAV in, you can use a balloon. Where the UAV really comes into its own is in mobile situations.


The only benefit I see is that using UAVs you don't need to move say, a ground vehicle to position the antenna. These could re-establish communications within a few minutes of the disaster, when it is more needed. And some hours later, when the tethered balloons are fixed in place, the UAVs could be recalled.


I dunno, does this make more or less sense than a tethered balloon? Seems like, with a tethered ballon, all you really need to loft up is the antenna - all the communications gear can remain on the ground. I can see some advantage to launching it outside the disaster zone and using GPS to have it auto-manuever itself to hover directly above the area needing communications. Also, I imagine that speed of deployment is potentially faster than a balloon. With a loitering time of 45 minutes to 2 hours, this model can't stay over head for very long, but I have no idea how long the average disaster lasts, in terms of a communcation outage.


re; cachurro - SeekMocha

A balloon based systems could be put into aerodynamic casings and deployed by dropping from aircraft.

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