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Remotely-Piloted Helicopters Improving Safety

For about a decade, Siu O’Young has been wrestling with a problem: How can unmanned aircraft — commonly known as drones — fly safely in a sky filled with aircraft?

A native of Hong Kong, O’Young is a professor at Memorial University of Newfoundland and is now developing a young company called Seamatica Aerospace Ltd. in the Genesis Centre, the university’s commercialization incubator.

Seamatica is exploring commercial opportunities for unmanned aircraft and tackling the vexing problem of flying them so they are not a danger to other planes.

“The whole thing is collision avoidance,” said O’Young in a recent interview in the Genesis Centre. As he spoke, he paused occasionally to help Seamatica CTO Robert MacIsaac and pilot Stephen Crewe work on a hexacopter (an unmanned helicopter with six rotors) that they were to display at a trade show the next day.

O’Young never seems to be far from a pile of disassembled aircraft parts. I first met him five years ago when I was doing a story for Progress magazine on Raven, a pioneering project on an unmanned plane that could take photographs for maritime surveillance. His main problem was that Transport Canada (as with similar bodies in other countries) greatly restricts unmanned aircraft because they could stray into the path of an oncoming plane.

The problem is unmanned aircraft cannot detect oncoming planes and their inability to get out of the way could cause a collision.

O’Young and his Seamatica co-founder Vincent Contarino are working on commercializing their expertise in unmanned flight as they develop solutions for the safety problem.

The first marketable project they are working on is using remotely piloted helicopters to inspect high structures, like smoke stacks or cooling towers in industrial plants, or bridge supports.

Such structures are now inspected by humans on scaffolds or suspended by ropes, which can be costly and dangerous. With a video camera mounted on a helicopter, Seamatica can do the same job more safely and cheaply, and could access crevices that would be difficult for a dangling human to reach.

O’Young said this service could be on the market within six months, and that Transport Canada would likely allow such flights as they don’t interfere with flight paths.

The other project is more ambitious: the team has been experimenting with equipping manned and unmanned aircraft with an ADS-B radio transponder. The radio transponder broadcasts the GPS position of the aircraft to other planes that are also equipped with ADS-B devices. The company has demonstrated an ADS-B equipped unmanned aircraft can autonomously avoid collision with another ADS-B equipped aircraft.

The problem with the plan is that other aircraft would need a similar radio transponder to be picked up by the unmanned aircraft or the ground crew. Most commercial airliners do carry such a device and U.S. authorities have ruled that all planes in American airspace must soon be equipped with them.

O’Young said the company could commercialize this project within a year or two.

In the longer term, the company is working on a lightweight radar to complement the ADS-B radio transponder. The radar system could be either ground-based or airborne, and would detect aircraft without a working ADS-B radio transponder onboard. The duo of ADS-B transponder and radar could be a solution for the “collision-avoidance” problem that O’Young has been working on for the last 10 years.