Drones in the north – our eyes in the sky and in the water

Countless models of drone are now available to all of us. Their use is increasing as the technology gets cheaper, and new applications for drones are constantly being found. Northern Norway is an attractive location for testing and developing this kind of technology, and there are many potential uses here.

Drones are unmanned vehicles. Some are remote-controlled and are driven by an operator on the ground or on board a boat. Others are autonomous and are pre-programmed to perform specific tasks on their own. They come in all shapes and sizes. Some are designed for professional use, while others are toys for amateurs. Drones can be used as instrument carriers – in other words for transporting cameras, sensors and other measuring equipment. As instrument carriers they can be very useful to humans. They have enormous potential for collecting information, and the rate of development is accelerating.

Originally for the petroleum and arms industries

Drones were originally developed for the arms industry. Military drones were initially used as instrument carriers for collecting information and later also for combat. Today, surveillance drones the size of aeroplanes are used to monitor activity from the air. One model, the Global Hawk, which is used by the US and NATO countries, for example, has an incredible range and can stay in the air for over 32 hours continuously. This drone, which is over 14 metres long, is equipped with advanced instruments that can be used to monitor an area of up to 100,000 square kilometres each day. It can operate autonomously or be controlled remotely via satellite. If controlled remotely, the drone is driven by an operator on the ground who in practice can be on the opposite side of the planet from the drone.

For monitoring activities below water, there are underwater drones which, just like the Global Hawk, can collect detailed information about large areas. What all military drones have in common is that they can be equipped with weapons for combat missions. There is little doubt that military drones will play an increasingly important role in the wars of the future.

Between 1980 and 1990, seven divers died while working for the petroleum industry in the North Sea. In the 1990s, remote operated vehicles (ROVs) started being used on the Norwegian Continental Shelf. Tasks that were previously performed by divers were taken over by drones. The jobs that were typically taken over by drones were installing and servicing equipment. This resulted in more automated work processes in which ROVs acted as the underwater eyes and arms of humans. Equipped with various cameras and manipulator arms, drones can now perform tasks that were previously performed by divers more safely and efficiently. They are controlled from a room on a ship or oil platform, where the operators manoeuvre them while consulting closely with various experts. These days underwater drones carry out many of the tasks performed on underwater installations in the petroleum industry. It is now even possible to control them from land, and it is likely that many industries will make greater use of that possibility in the future. Being able to control underwater drones from land will reduce staffing requirements and make employees safer.

As the technology has become cheaper and drones have become more intuitive to use, drones and the information they collect are being exploited by increasing numbers of professional and amateur users. A drone that was initially developed to survey military artefacts on the sea bottom using cameras and sonar can be used to provide information to biologists, geologists and chemists, for example.

Drones in the sky and in the water

Some drones are designed to fly in the sky. The most common aerial drones, which are often used by amateurs, can be referred to as multirotors. They are really small helicopters and they can fly straight up off the ground. These multirotors are often equipped with cameras capable of taking good overview images of the local area. Industrial autonomous drones may be designed as planes with wingspans of up to several metres. These drones normally need a runway for take-off and landing, but the advantage is that they have a far greater range than the small multirotors. Andøya Space Center has recently invested in a drone with a wingspan of six metres, which can fly at speeds of up to 100 kilometres per hour. The drone is controlled using radio or satellite signals and is capable of covering a large area of the sky.

Underwater drones can be split into two groups: Remotely Operated Vehicles (ROVs) and Autonomous Underwater Vehicles (AUVs). Both groups include a number of different types, ranging from those designed for private individuals wanting to explore life below water to those used professionally to assemble and inspect underwater installations. AUVs can drift, drive or glide through the water without any real-time human control. Some AUVs can communicate with operators through satellite or acoustic signals to provide a certain degree of control. Others can even take their own decisions and change their mission based on the data they have collected so far.

Kongsberg Maritime is one of the Norwegian companies that is a world leader in the development and operation of AUVs. They offer underwater drones in various sizes and with various levels of equipment for commercial and military purposes. HUGIN is the name of the largest type of AUV offered by the company. These drones can carry various different sensors, operate for a long period of time and go right down to 6,000 metres below sea level. They are 6.6 m long and are released into the water and taken back out again using a special ramp on big boats. In one hour of operation, HUGIN can take detailed photographs of around 4.5 km2 of the sea bottom. These drones have a wide range of uses including military applications, such as surveillance and detection of mines on the sea floor, and inspecting pipelines and other underwater installations for the petroleum industry.

Can drones make life simpler for us?

Drones have various areas of use: transporting personnel and equipment, performing tasks like sample-taking and maintenance of installations, monitoring and recording objects and physical parameters. New potential uses for these vehicles are constantly being explored. Drones can be used by themselves or in combination with other tools, and they can automate tasks that were previously performed by humans.

One of the important advantages of drones is that they make it possible to operate in places where people for whatever reason cannot or shouldn’t spend time. For example, under the sea ice in the Arctic or in places ravaged by war. After the avalanche in Tamokdalen in January this year, in which four foreign skiers lost their lives, a drone equipped with an avalanche radar was deployed to look for the missing people. Drones equipped with thermal imaging cameras have also been used in these kinds of situations, as well as being used by the fire service to monitor fires and search for missing people. In the future, further development and use of this technology will help to narrow down the area of focus in emergency situations.

Rwanda is one of the countries that have started using drones for disaster relief work. In a country with limited infrastructure, and where only 25 percent of the road network is surfaced, transporting emergency aid can be very challenging. The company Zipline has responded by offering a solution that uses drones to transport blood and vaccines to hospitals in remote locations. The emergency aid is ordered by text message, and the company has to date delivered over 7,000 units of lifesaving blood. Instead of landing on the ground, the drones drop parcels equipped with small parachutes, allowing the supplies to float safely and gently down to their destination. Zipline eventually hopes to offer this kind of delivery service throughout the world. Perhaps in the future this will also be used in Northern Norway?

The use of drones for the maintenance and inspection of infrastructure has gradually become an established practice that saves time and money compared with traditional methods. Amongst other things, drones can be used to inspect and maintain cages at fish farms, pipelines and high-voltage cables.

The fouling of cages for salmon is one of the problems that fish farmers have to deal with. Traditionally, divers cleaned the cages, but nowadays it is more common for this task to be performed by ROVs. Sperre is a Norwegian company that is developing and supplying technology for this area. Using a pressure washer, the ROV can continuously clean fish cages day and night. Using an ROV is a cheaper, more efficient and safer alternative to using divers for this kind of job.

The company Aerones has specialised in cleaning and de-icing large structures such as wind turbines. The drones they use have a cable than runs to the operator on the ground and which supplies the drone with power and water. The same method can be used as a cheaper and safer alternative to manual cleaning of large buildings.

It appears that our imagination is the limit to what drones can be used for today and in the future. Electric air taxis to carry passengers to and from airports, delivery services, automated search and discovery of objects, and fleets of constantly operating underwater drones are just a few examples of what different companies are working on at the moment.

Instrument carriers

Many people consider the main use of drones to be as instrument carriers. In many cases instruments traditionally used on planes or boats have become much smaller, making it possible to install them on vehicles of all sizes. These instruments include advanced sonar systems for surveying fish stocks, sensors that can monitor environmental parameters in the air or water, and cameras capable of using advanced image analysis to identify the presence of a particular kind of vegetation.

Hyperspectral cameras can be used to survey large areas. All objects have a unique optical signature that is like their fingerprint. A normal camera takes photos using three colour bands (red, green and blue), whereas hyperspectral cameras use hundreds of colour bands. This produces highly detailed pictures that allow you to distinguish different objects based on their optical signatures. Researchers in Queensland, Australia have used drones equipped with hyperspectral cameras flying at a height of 100 m to survey coral reefs. The high resolution of the images and the tiny margin of error makes it possible to identify individual corals. The researchers are now developing algorithms that will enable computerised analysis of the images, which will turn recognising individual corals into an automated, highly efficient process.

These kinds of images provide us with valuable information about biodiversity and the presence of various objects of interest on land or under water. In some cases the images can be geolocalised, making it possible to identify the exact position of each pixel in the image. Taking photos of the same area at regular intervals will provide detailed information about any changes taking place over time. Many people envisage hyperspectral cameras being used to survey marine litter along beaches, but so far the margins of error have been too big for them to be able to recognise individual objects. As the technology develops, it may become useful for surveying and monitoring marine litter in the future.

Challenges

There are various challenges associated with using drones in the sky and under water. In the sky there are various restrictions on where drones can fly. This is particularly true of areas with large amounts of commercial air traffic.

Drones used in the sea must be built to high standards, so they can withstand high pressure, currents and salt water. GPS signals don’t work underwater, which means that you have to use other forms of navigation for AUVs. Using drones equipped with modern technology is also often expensive. For bigger vessels operating under water, you often need a ship or barge with operators to control or monitor the movement of the drones. This greatly increases the cost for commercial operators who are dependent on these kinds of vessels for maintaining their operations.

What were once considered unrealistic dreams will soon become a reality. Many AUVs are limited by their battery capacity and need to be taken out of the water to be charged before continuing their work. The Norwegian company Blue Logic is developing a system for inductive wireless charging on a charging platform on the sea bed. While charging its batteries, the drone can send any data collected back to land and receive new orders. This kind of infrastructure makes it possible for AUVs to continue operating for a long time with the charging platform as their base.

Northern Norway is a great testing ground

There are many reasons to believe that Northern Norway is a good place to test and develop drone technology. The region is home to various leading centres of expertise in the field. There is also relatively little air traffic in the northernmost counties of Norway, which makes the region attractive to both domestic and international companies. The possible establishment of a Norwegian drone centre on Andøya is one indication that this potential will be exploited in the future.

Andøya Space Center is a testing and launch site for research rockets and scientific balloons. The company can offer a 25,000 square kilometre testing site without any height restrictions. This is extremely attractive to international companies that want to launch rockets or carry out other kinds of testing in the sky. Options currently being explored include establishing a satellite launch site on Andøya, as well as the abovementioned drone centre. If these plans come to fruition, they will create many new jobs in the local area and have big secondary economic impacts across the country. Andøya Space Center currently operates several large aerial drones. These drones can be equipped with high-tech instruments for identifying objects of interest on land or on the sea surface. The company is collaborating with the company SALT to explore the possibility of identifying marine litter along the coast.

The Norwegian research and development company NORUT is another leading centre of expertise on drones. In the autumn of 2018, they performed a joint test with the Belgian authorities and the European Space Agency (ESA). The drone they used was two metres long and had a five metre wingspan. The test, which was performed in Troms, was designed to test new drone technology and advanced information flow. The drone was equipped with a video camera and new technology that enables the real-time conversion of videos to searchable photos on a map. Nils Håheim-Saers, NORUT’s Operations Manager, believes that this technology can provide quicker access to important data that can facilitate a successful response to critical incidents. Relevant incidents include accidents at sea and oil spills from platforms of ships.

Within the aquaculture industry, the use of drones is an established practice. Over recent decades there has been a paradigm shift, are drones are now widely used to collect data. Akvaplan-niva in Tromsø is currently working on various projects involving AUVs that glide through the water, known as underwater gliders. These vessels, which have wings instead of a propeller, make use of small changes in buoyancy to glide forwards through the water. One of the company’s projects is a collaboration with Chinese researchers to study the highly productive marine areas off the Lofoten and Vesterålen archipelagos. The project involves using both data collected by several gliders and data collected in the traditional way by a research vessel. The gliders will collect information about things like zooplankton, currents, temperature conditions and the salinity of the water.

Collecting data with research vessels can sometimes give a false picture of the dynamics of marine organisms. Large research vessels and instruments produce pressure waves, noise and light pollution that affect the structure, movement and behaviour of plankton and fish. Using gliders with modern instruments has given the researchers new information about the movement patterns of species like the Calanus finmarchicus. These vessels don’t disturb the water column to the same extent as research vessels, so they are thought to provide more accurate information about underwater life. Akvaplan-niva is therefore firmly in the camp of those that believe strongly in using autonomous platforms to gather information about the marine environment.

Drones are useful in Northern Norway

The seas off northern Norway are highly productive. They are home to the spawning grounds, nurseries and habitats of a number of commercially important species of fish. This provides the basis for a big fishing industry along the coast. The region’s aquaculture industry is growing, and in the future more farms will be built further out on the continental shelf. There are also significant oil and gas reserves that many companies are keen to exploit.

Drones can be used to survey fish populations, providing a cheaper alternative to research vessels. Researchers have traditionally surveyed fish stocks using echo sounders on research vessels and based on research catches taken with purse seines and trawl nets. These methods are extremely expensive, and their use is limited to commercially fished species such as cod, herring and mackerel. UAVs, which would be more efficient and have a lower environmental impact, could therefore be used to supplement traditional research missions. In the long run this might give us even more accurate estimates of the size of our fish stocks, and thus help us to manage them better.

In the future, drones may be used to transport personnel and equipment to and from oil and gas platforms, and eventually to offshore fish farms as well. A Norwegian company recently bought an eHang 216 autonomous aerial vehicle precisely for this purpose. The drone has 16 rotors on eight arms and is capable of transporting two people. It is predicted that this type of vehicle will in due course revolutionise transport at sea.

There is lots of maritime activity both along the coast and out at sea. If the Northeast Passage becomes ice-free for part of the year, the volume of shipping traffic through the area will increase. This route will reduce the journey time between Europe and Asia by up to 40 percent according to the Bjerknes Centre for Climate Research. Another impact of more areas becoming ice-free is that it provides greater access to natural resources like oil, gas and minerals. Cruise tourism has exploded in recent years, and this trend will probably continue into the future. It is also the subject of great debate, with questions being raised about its environmental impacts and about the limited rescue capacity available in the event of an accident. There is also a great deal of military activity north of the Arctic Circle, with the area off Andøya being an important testing ground for military equipment and drones. In a region with very challenging topography in places, long distances and low population density, there are challenges associated with all of these activities.

For the purpose of surveying and monitoring the growing amount of activity, drones offer excellent coverage in time and space. Many technology providers are working to develop algorithms that will automatically detect objects of interest. These may include ships travelling at sea or underwater fish stocks. With the enormous amount of data that is often collected, filtering the information is often a time-consuming and laborious process. Identifying objects of interest manually also involves a subjective element, which potentially introduces large margins of error. In the future, computers will be able to help us automatically process this kind of information more efficiently and accurately. This will make useful information available more quickly, potentially enabling an earlier response.

Poor mobile phone coverage can pose a challenge and potentially be life-threatening in an emergency situation where you are a long way from any help. Technology developers are now working on drones equipped with base stations to increase mobile phone coverage in areas where it is poor or non-existent. Having more of these drones in operation could improve coverage for people on land or at sea.

On account of environmental conditions and increasing human activity, there is a great need to carry out more surveying and monitoring. This applies both to obtaining more information about living organisms and environmental parameters and to monitoring human activities. Drones will be valuable tools in this work, as supplements to, and even replacements for, conventional data collection methods. This information is important because it will enable decision-makers to take good, informed choices now and in the future.

Can drones solve some of Northern Norway’s logistical challenges?

Together, Norway’s three northernmost counties cover around 35 percent of Norway’s total land area. The county of Finnmark alone is bigger than Denmark. Northern Norway has a low population density and in places the topography and weather conditions are challenging, which makes transport slow and expensive. Can drones make it easier to deal with the great distances in the region?

For people with animals on rough grazing, drones for monitoring and counting the animals have been launched and tested. Shepherding grazing animals spread across large areas has traditionally been a time-consuming operation. So how can unmanned vehicles be used to help? In partnership with organisations including the Norwegian Institute of Bioeconomy Research (NIBIO), reindeer owners are testing putting electronic tags on reindeer. The radio signal can be picked up by drones, providing the reindeer owners with information about where the flock is and enabling them to monitor its movement patterns over time.

In 2010, transport was responsible for 14 percent of total greenhouse gas emissions. Fossil fuel-based transport by road, rail, air and sea is the biggest contributor. The number of HGVs on the roads of Northern Norway has increased in recent years. Several international freight companies are now exploring the possibility of delivering parcels by drone rather than by lorry. Researchers have found that in some cases small, electric drones can reduce energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions. It is possible to imagine that one day they will offer environmental benefits in Northern Norway.

Drones are important tools for humans. As the technology progresses by leaps and bounds, unmanned vehicles will play an increasingly important role – alone or in combination with other methods for carrying out a variety of tasks. In Norway there are currently lots of centres of expertise in developing and testing the technology needed for unmanned vehicles. Drone technology has revolutionised the way things are done, and it will probably help us to solve many of the challenges of the future – both globally and locally.

More from KbNN

Read more