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UK powers drones, Greece bristles, UAV tiff

Industry, defense and commercial UAS news

This month, we have developments across the globe, with drones inspecting power distribution systems and nuclear waste disposal in the United Kingdom, counter UAS (C-UAS ) systems deployed in Greece, and news of cutbacks in the UAV industry affecting two major suppliers.

UK Turns to Drone Power

The UK has reduced coal power generation significantly since 2013 by increasing use of natural gas, nuclear power and renewable sources. Power is distributed throughout the UK by the National Grid Electricity Transmission (NGET) via 4,000 miles of overhead high-voltage lines carried on 21,900 steel pylons. With another 330 substations to also look after, the infrastructure for power distribution in UK always has required a huge maintenance effort. This picture is likely reflected in the power distribution networks of most countries around the world.

Helicopters have carried a large portion of the workload to enable inspection of cables and insulators, with additional necessary manual inspections taking significant effort to gain access and analyze data. Helicopter time is expensive, and manual inspection processes and data analysis are tedious and time consuming.

Drones are being used for power-line inspection — flown manually by onsite operators — by many organizations in several countries around the world, including by FPL in Florida. But the real reduction in time and effort comes from automating the whole process, and gathering data that provides the detail necessary to assure defects are detected and operational integrity is maintained. The automation of data analysis and generation of useful reports is another area which could yield major savings, and bring rapid focus to areas needing immediate corrective action.

A Pylon inspection automation. (Photo: NGET)

A pylon inspection automation. (Photo: NGET)

Hence, a 12-month trial is being undertaken involving ultimate approval by the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) for beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) multiple drone operations. Artificial intelligent (AI) analysis tools are being developed to determine critical changes in collected visual, lidar and positioning inspection data that might herald deterioration in pylon or other infrastructure components.

During an initial test in Nottingham, an autonomous drone was dispatched with minimal instructions. It was able to find its inspection target and complete the programmed inspection in a few minutes. A manual inspection could take up to an hour for the same task. If things go well, it is not impossible to be able to project multiple drones operating with minimal human control, taking on huge swaths of pylons, cabling, insulators and other elements during regular inspections, saving a lot of time and money.

The trials so far have also included remote inspection of the Sellafield nuclear waste decommissioning site, rail infrastructure and a telecommunications network along with investigations towards transport of medical supplies.

Sellafield is where spent fuel ends up from the UK’s 31 nuclear power plants. Also, nuclear waste from reactors in neighboring European countries is reprocessed here. Nuclear waste is processed into 50-ton concrete blocks and spent fuel is “vitrified” into huge chunks of glass, which are encased in an outside metal jacket. Both processes minimize any emitted radiation and allow the contents to safely  cool over long term. The staff uses robots inside the facility to remotely dismantle contaminated areas and load material into 55-gallon drums, which might be further processed by robot crushing machines. No one has any real idea how all this nuclear waste could be permanently disposed of, but it’s possible most will ultimately be buried in the ground.

This type of power might seem a “green” boon for humanity, but in a somewhat countrified area on the West Coast of England and in other similar sites around the world, nuclear waste disposal is costly and very, very long-term. The half-life of uranium is between 159,200 years and 4.5 billion years. Monitoring the waste could be a long-term task for drones, such as those now used to detect radiation inside the Fukushima nuclear plant. Certainly, there’s plenty of time to evolve improved drone detection capability for radiation monitoring.

Greece Employs Counter-UAS against Turkish Incursions

On a defense-related note, apparently the long-running rivalry between Turkey and Greece is, unfortunately, continuing. It seems that Turkey has been repeatedly flying its Baykar-TB2 surveillance drone over Greek islands, perhaps to monitor the movements of Greek warships or island defense installations. And Greece is a little bit more than peeved.

Bayraktar - TB2 surveillance/attack drone (Photo: Baykartech)

Bayraktar TB2 surveillance/attack drone (Photo: Baykartech)

Having established a defense-related relationship with Israel in 2021, Greece has brought Israeli drone defense systems to the Greek islands, installing a “veritable umbrella against enemy unmanned aerial vehicles.” The Israeli system has a number of moving parts: detect and identify; generate related alerts; a directional jamming system that can disable drones in flight (presumably by jamming GPS or the control link); and a laser that can lock onto a small target and, if manually fired, can apparently destroy an intruder drone.

Drone-Dome elements (Photo: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)

DroneDome elements (Photo: Rafael Advanced Defense Systems)

Because of the directional, narrow beamwidth of the jammer, Rafael claims that the system can be activated within crowded civilian airspace without affecting the navigation of other users. Good news for Greece and their popular, attractive Greek island tourist destinations.

UAV Defense Contractors Struggle — with Each Other

Meanwhile, current economic uncertainty is apparently impacting at least a couple of UAV defense contractors: Boeing/Insitu and Orbital UAV. The two made news when Orbital, as an Australian public company (ASX symbol OEC), had to halt trading. The company was then able to reinstate trading largely because of news of cancellation of a development/production agreement with Insitu.

Apparently, Orbital has previously been delivering two-engine versions to Insitu and was contracted to develop and deliver a third derivative engine. However, Insitu had to scale back Orbital’s work in February, given its sales of the popular ScanEagle and other UAVs may have fallen off in recent months.

Orbital UAV Propulsion System (Photo: Orbital)

Orbital UAV Propulsion System (Photo: Orbital)

This has affected Orbital’s revenue forecast for the year. The company now expects to lose AUD $7 million for the year. It has subsequently prepared a claim under the supply agreement for Insitu’s Termination for Convenience of AUD $1.8 million in costs incurred in the development of the third engine program, which Insitu/Boeing disputes. There will obviously be some wrangling, but hopefully both parties will settle things amicably so as not to damage their ongoing relationship for supply of the existing two engine types.

 ScanEagle UAV (Photo: US Navy)

ScanEagle UAV (Photo: U.S. Navy)

To sum up, for this month we have a trial in the UK which will hopefully lead to significant savings in effort and costs for ongoing power infrastructure inspections, along with some background on UK nuclear waste disposal. Greece is bristling and defending against unwanted Turkish drone overflight using Israeli C-UAS systems. Finally, there’s somewhat negative news for the Orbital UAV engine and Insitu ScanEagle relationship — apparently, not everything in the UAV garden is roses.

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