Solar-powered UAV proves worth in refugee SAR mission

By UAS Magazine Staff | October 24, 2016

A solar-powered unmanned aircraft system has proven its ability to help locate refugee’s day or night. A team of researchers from the Autonomous Systems Lab in Zurich, Switzerland, put its long-endurance, record-breaking AtlantikSolar UAS in the sky for 26 hours to perform a search and rescue mission. Outfitted with an infrared camera, the system was able to fly in total darkness while still detecting simulated victims in need of help. “We could identify and retrieve their exact GPS location via our data links and could then forward their location to first-response teams on the ground,” said Philipp Oettershagen, research assistant at ASL.

“In the end, after a full-night SAR mission, the aircraft had a remaining battery state of charge of 26 percent,” Oettershagen added.

The ASL team believes the solar-powered UAV can be used for refugees in the Mediterranean Sea because the SAR missions require a large scale UAV capable of carrying large payloads while staying in the air for several hours at a time.

The work on SAR missions isn’t the end for the ASL team. Along the coasts of Norway and Italy, the team will also perform border patrol missions where refugees are constantly crossing. And, next year the team will turn their focus to climate research. In the summer, the team will perform a six-week mission in Greenland that will include multi-hour flights over Arctic glaciers.

“The harsh climatic conditions will be a significant challenge and will require us to draw on all our experience in meteorology-aware trajectory planning for solar-powered UAVs,” he said. “The fact that the sun never sets in the Arctic summer provides a significant operational advantage to solar-powered UAVs there.”