By Brett Davis
The Department of Homeland Security is underway with its Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety (RAPS) program, intended to help public safety officials learn about the use of small unmanned aircraft.
DHS kicked off the program in December when Lockheed Martin brought its Stalker to the Oklahoma test site, an Oklahoma State University – University Multispectral Laboratory facility adjacent to Fort Sill.
RAPS plans to have one vendor a month come out for four to five days of testing using a DHS-written set of scenarios. Each vendor pays its own way and can test one type of aircraft or several. At a public event on 17 Jan. at the facility, AeroVironment was wrapping up four days of testing its Wasp, Raven and Puma vehicles.
In the demonstration, a Raven located two people walking, tracked a person who dropped a gun, and then ran and located two missing people who had pretended to fall in a creek.
The results of all the tests will be shared with first responders to help them know what to expect when it comes to using the vehicles, said Dr. John Appleby, a senior program manager at the DHS Homeland Security Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Technology Directorate and the director of the RAPS program.
“We have lots of airplanes coming through the process,” Appleby said.
The emphasis is on mature systems, not prototypes, because the goal is rapid transition.
“If we started from scratch in a traditional way … it would take quite a long time,” he said. “It’s better to look at some of the mature technologies out there.”
In addition to showcasing the performance of the systems, RAPS also indicates how easy they are to assemble and launch and how they respond to a lost link situation.
In the future, RAPS is expected to create a knowledge database and help guide future aircraft and sensor development for homeland security and first responder requirements.
The preferred performance parameters for aircraft taking part including ones with at least 2,000 flight hours under their belt, with electro-optical/infrared payloads as well as sensors capable of detecting chemical, biological and radiological threats.
They should be hand-launched and recovered by deep-stall techniques, although catapult launches and line or net recovery is also possible. They can be rotary vehicles or fixed-wing aircraft, and most won’t be flown higher than 400 feet.
The Oklahoma site was selected because of the space it offered as well as its proximity to Fort Sill’s restricted airspace.
Data from the program is being shared with the Federal Aviation Administration to inform its pending small UAS rulemaking, and agency officials were present at the January public demonstration.
Appleby said that fewer than 1 percent of first responders have air assets of any kind, but small unmanned aircraft are within the reach of many.
Oklahoma Praises RAPS, Sets Sights on More UAS
Gov. Mary Fallin said the deal would bring $1.4 million in federal spending to the state in the first year of operation.
“Aerospace is one of the most important sectors of Oklahoma’s economy, supporting over 150,000 jobs around the state and accounting for more than $12.5 billion in industrial output each year,” Fallin said at the time. “Within that industry, unmanned aircraft systems represent the fastest growing part of the aerospace sector.”
She said Oklahoma is “committed to becoming the number one place for UAS operations, research, experimentation, design and testing in the country.”
While it’s too soon to say if that will come to pass, more jobs are likely on the way. The pending integration of unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System will bring numerous jobs to Oklahoma and other states in the near future, and AUVSI brought that news to the state capitol building on 16 Jan.
Fallin joined AUVSI President and CEO Michael Toscano at a press conference to discuss preliminary results of an AUVSI-sponsored study that forecasts more than 100,000 new jobs, many of them in manufacturing, across the country by 2025.
The study predicts that two of the hottest markets for unmanned aircraft will be in agriculture and public safety, and agriculture is one of the largest industries in the state of Oklahoma.
According to some preliminary numbers, Oklahoma stands to gain 600 new jobs in just the first three years after UAS are integrated, resulting in $57 million new economic activity.
“We are taking the steps necessary to create an environment conducive to job creation and investment that also positions Oklahoma as a national leader in the advancement of UAS technology,” Fallin said.
One of those steps is the creation of the state’s Unmanned Aerial Systems Council in 2011, headed by Dr. Stephen McKeever, the Oklahoma secretary of science and technology, who also attended the press conference.
The press conference included two models from Aero-Vironment, including the company’s three-pound Wasp fixed-wing aircraft and Qube, a 5.5-pound model aimed at the law enforcement and first responder market.
Oklahoma is one of numerous states bidding for a UAS test site. The FAA is expected to soon announce the six states that will be able to set up such a site, although the awards will come with no federal money.