Model aircraft technology used for hovering reconnaissance

Technology used by remote-controlled aircraft enthusiasts is being employed in a new lightweight, hovering surveillance system designed at Middlesex University for UK troops.

First-person view goggles (FPVGs), which give remote-control aircraft hobbyists an aerial view from their model aircraft, have now been employed to work in conjunction with an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) dubbed SQ-4 to give forward-deployed troops an advanced reconnaissance tool.

The remote-controlled SQ-4 has four rotary wings mounted on carbon-fibre arms that radiate from the nylon shell, which holds two cameras and its lithium-polymer battery power source.

Developed with Cardiff-based BCB International, the 230g system can fit into a soldier’s backpack, is operational in less than a minute and can hover at an altitude of 400ft (120m) to relay footage in real-time to its operator.

‘Two micro-cameras are on board with video telemetry,’ said Dr Stephen Prior, a robotics expert at Middlesex University. ‘One camera is forward facing and one facing vertically downwards so you get an overview of the battlefield.’

Prior told The Engineer that video footage can be relayed — day and night — to the FPVG or a commander’s handset with a 7in screen. The operator also has the option of being able to use a switch on the remote control to change which camera to receive footage from.

The FPVGs themselves provide the wearer with information such as latitude and longitude of the vehicle, the distance between the location and the home point, and the direction to home point.

Operationally, SQ-4 has a range of 1.5km and an endurance of 15 minutes per battery.

‘Fifteen minutes doesn’t sound a lot’, said Prior. ‘But in our pack… we would have a number of different batteries, so you could fly three, four, five missions in one sortie, which might give you an hour of flight time.

‘This isn’t so bad if you want to look around in a vicinity of around 1km: you can fly out, see what’s around, fly back and change the batteries and then fly again.

‘There’s also a feature where the operator can throw a switch and the unit will fly directly back to the home take-off point. This takes the burden away from the soldier if he’s got to move quickly.’

Operational requirement

Earlier this year, the UK Ministry of Defence (MoD) invited tenders for so-called Nano UAS to supplement similar systems in use in Afghanistan that are usually larger (up to a metre in length), heavier and have fixed wings.

‘They were looking for something around 200g, which went down to 60g,’ said Prior. ‘We had something around what the MoD was looking for and we entered the tender.

‘We weren’t shortlisted but we did produce something that was 60g and it flew but it was very small, very fragile and didn’t have very much endurance. We therefore didn’t think the 60g mark was correct but that’s what the MoD wanted.

‘We think a system around 200 and 400g is probably closer to what the soldier actually needs, rather than something that is so small and so fragile that it is likely to break in the hands of a soldier.‘

In terms of costs, the MoD tender was looking at 100 units at a cost of between £10m and £20m.

‘We think our system would come out at £20,000,’ said Prior. ‘In military terms this is very, very cheap.’

SQ-4 and another Middlesex UAV called HALO will be on display next week at DSEi, which is being held at the Excel Centre, London.