The UAV Challenge – Outback Rescue is at the heart of a world-leading Australian movement in innovation, industry cooperation, education, skilling and regulatory development for unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

The UAV Challenge, held for the fourth time this year in Kingaroy during September, comprises four competitions: the Airborne Delivery and Robot Airborne Delivery Challenges, open to Australian high school students, and the Search and Rescue Challenge, open to Australian and international university students and other entrants, as well as a Documentary Challenge.

The key foundation partners for the event are the Queensland Government, the Australian Research Centre for Aerospace Automation (ARCAA) – a collaboration between the CSIRO ICT Centre, Autonomous Systems Lab, and the School of Engineering Systems at the Queensland University of Technology – and Aviation Development Australia Limited (ADAL), a not-for-profit subsidiary of Aerospace Maritime and Defence Foundation of Australia Limited which stages the biennial Avalon Airshow.

The challenges centre on ‘Outback Joe’, a life-size dummy representing a lost bushwalker in need of assistance. The open Search and Rescue Challenge requires entrants to develop a UAV capable of leaving the airfield to search within a two-kilometre by three-kilometre search area, returning to provide judges with GPS coordinates of Joe’s location, and then delivering a water bottle as close as possible to him.

Forty-five entries were received from countries around the world for the open competition. Of those, just 12 passed the two documentation milestones required for invitation to compete at the Challenge. The two project deliverables included meeting a range of safety criteria, such as detailing for the judges the way in which the system would respond to navigation or communications failures. Five teams then dropped out before the first day of competition in September, and seven teams flew during the event in Kingaroy.

After four Challenges, no team has succeeded in completing all Search and Rescue tasks in order to take home the $50,000 prize. However, Dr Jonathon Roberts, the acting director of ARCAA and one of the ‘co-inventors’ of the Challenge, said that “huge progress” had been made.

“This year the University of North Dakota team did extremely well – they found outback Joe within eight minutes,” Dr Roberts said. “They went to do their actual drop and they noticed that the water bottle had already gone, and it had been accidentally dropped just a little bit [early]. It was just one of those things – they were very, very close to winning the $50,000.”

As in previous years, the 2010 prize money was divided amongst top-performing entrants in the absence of an overall success. The North Dakota team were awarded $15,000 for their efforts, while a second US team received $5,000 for successfully leaving the airfield and entering the search area.

In the Airborne Delivery Challenge, the remotely piloted UAV is flown over a target area, and a mission manager relies solely on vision provided by the aircraft to time payload delivery in order to drop an assistance package – in this year’s competition, a chocolate bar – as close as possible to Joe.

Teams are judged on the time taken to complete the challenge, and the proximity of their drop to the target. A team from Calamvale Community College in Queensland took out the $5,000 for dropping their payload between Joe’s legs, beating out seven other teams, including two from Queensland’s Mueller College, one from South Australia’s Riverton and District High School, and four teams from Brisbane’s Aviation High.

The Robot Airborne Delivery Challenge awards points for the level of autonomy demonstrated by the UAVs, with maximum points received for packages dropped autonomously. No teams qualified for the Robot Airborne Delivery Challenge in 2010.

A two-person team from Melbourne won $5,000 in the Documentary Challenge, for the best film recording the team’s preparations for the Challenge.

UAV awareness

Dr Jonathon Roberts told the 2010 UAV Challenge industry dinner that he had stumbled upon the original concept documents this year, and found that over its short history the Challenge had fulfilled the organisers’ original goals, which included: enhancing CASA collaboration during the formative period of regulation development; gaining valuable flight test management experience; providing the opportunity to identify and secure academic candidates in the area; increasing exposure and strategic positioning of ARCAA between potential end-users, emerging markets and OEM technology providers; and promoting civilian applications for UAVs.

“We said that the benefits that we thought would come out of the challenge were to raise awareness and publicity for UAVs in the civilian, public-good, non-military type applications, and I really think we’ve done that,” Dr Roberts said.

“Skilling is one of the motivations, [but] one of the other big things is to do things like this Challenge and have the public understand UAVs, and not be terrified of them.”

Boeing Research and Development-Australia’s Brendan Williams, who was on the technical committee and the Search and Rescue judging panel for the event, said that as well as bringing budding aviators and engineers into contact with the industry, the competition provided invaluable ‘hands-on’ experience which would serve them well in future aerospace careers.

“We’re working on a system that has a lot of complexities, and the more parts of that system you understand, I think the better the design solution,” Williams said. “And so for these students working on operations, design, maintenance and understanding the regulatory environment, it’s all good experience that they may not have got until much later in their career.”

Regulatory development

The UAV Challenge has been a component of the collaboration between the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) and industry and it has demonstrated that, given the appropriate procedures, UAVs and manned aircraft can be safely operated in a joint environment.

CASA is in the process of revising the current regulation that governs the use of UAS. Australia is currently the only country in the world with UAS regulations – CASR Part 101, unmanned aircraft and rocket operations, was produced in 2002 – but they are operational rather than certification regulations.

CASA’s UAS specialist Phil Presgrave told ABM that future-proofing regulations was made complex by the rapidity of technology development, including ‘strong autonomy’ – fully autonomous vehicles making their own decisions and excluding humans from the system – and the potential introduction of ‘optionally piloted’ aircraft.

In partnership, industry and CASA are also developing a range of competencies that will fit into the national training framework to provide qualifications and potentially licensing for UAS operations, as well as working towards development of UAV airworthiness certifications.

CASA currently requires prospective UAV pilots to complete the aviation theory exam components of the Private Pilot Licence (PPL), but Presgrave said that both CASA and industry saw that system as “not the optimum”.

“We’re working with industry to develop a range of competencies that will provide qualifications and potentially licensing equated to each level of activity.

“So [for example] the lowest level of activity at the lowest level of competence relates to radio-controlled manual flying. What we need to do then is examine whether all the things they’re given in the PPL exams, and the theory and ground school leading up to that, are applicable.”

Presgrave said an industry task team was working to tailor the qualification structure, which would potentially include levels of UA licensing dependent on complexity of task and aircraft, similar to levels of regular pilot licensing.

Appropriate competencies, syllabi, exams and licensing could be developed during 2011, allowing the content to become part of the Aviation Training Package next year or during 2012.

But it is not just the pilots of unmanned systems who require training for the successful deployment of UAS in shared airspace. While the UAV Challenge has shown that UAVs and manned aircraft can be co-ordinated without incident – during the 2009 competition, there were in excess of 50 aircraft movements at the Kingaroy airfield – Presgrave said there was a need to educate the conventional aircraft community on their role and responsibilities in relation to UAS.

“I believe that there’s certainly got to be not only lessons learnt, but an education program that we can put together for convention pilots and UAV pilots relating to airspace access, aerodrome circuit procedures, all of those sorts of things.”

Where to from here?

Presgrave told ABM that while the regulation and procedural development were underway, CASA had approved 13 UAS operator certificates, with another 45 plus “in the pipeline”.

CASA is encouraging industry to engage with the regulator early on operational concepts for UAS, to allow time to work through potential issues and achieve project approval.

And as for the Challenge itself? Dr Roberts said the organisers had every intention of seeing the competition continue – and evolve – for the foreseeable future.

“The open challenge that we’ve got is actually just an intermediate challenge,” Dr Roberts said. “The ‘real’ challenge is actually far more difficult, but we decided it was so difficult that we wouldn’t tell the world about it quite yet, and we’ll wait for people to finish this one before we then pitch the real one.

“If someone wins here, then we know what the next one will be. So it won’t be all over if someone wins.”

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