UAS potential isn’t limited to the air. In fact, unmanned systems promise as many commercial benefits on the ground and at sea as they do in the sky.
“Ground robots are extremely important,” said Mario Mairena, government relations manager at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), who touted as an example the impending rise of autonomous cars, which eventually will offer safety, liability, environmental, and cost advantages not only to individual motorists, but also for industries that rely on ground transportation, such as shipping and logistics, emergency services, and mobile asset management.
Startup company Transcend Robotics, which designed a ground robot capable of climbing stairs and curbs, emphasizes the benefits of ground technology, including superior battery life, payload capacity, maneuverability, and durability.
“Ground robots have applications in all sorts of different situations,” said Phillip Walker, CEO of Transcend Robotics. “The most common we’ve seen so far is HAZMAT and structural inspection; we’ve already attracted nuclear plant inspectors and bridge data mappers to our product.”
Another dangerous sector where ground robots could likely flourish is mining.
“You could send robots down into mines to assess whether there are gaseous fumes in the area that may pose a risk to human life,” Mairena said. “And if there’s an accident, you can send ground robots down to search for missing miners. That’s huge.”
At sea, companies such as Fugro and Leidos have introduced unmanned systems that deliver similar benefits to the offshore oil and gas industry, which uses autonomous underwater vehicles (AUVs) for deep-water surveying.
“Fugro has six autonomous underwater vehicles, and three of them are based in the Americas,” said Edward Saade, Fugro’s regional survey director for the Americas. “Obviously, when you have an autonomous underwater vehicle you’re not putting people at risk, which is a major benefit in the oil and gas world because you’re operating in a tough environment.”
AUVs also could assist with environmental risk mitigation by providing continuous monitoring of deep-water oil wells.
“All of us remember the BP disaster a few years ago. As a result of that, there’s been a lot of pressure for the oil and gas industry to develop more vehicles and technology to be able to monitor the general well-being and health status of their systems,” said Gunnar Galsgaard, division manager of maritime vessels at Leidos, which on behalf of the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA) is currently developing an autonomous continuous trail unmanned vessel (ACTUV) capable of surveilling the ocean for months at a time.
Although ACTUV is being designed for anti-submarine warfare, its technology could be translated for commercial applications.
“It’s a fully autonomous surface vessel, but the foundation is applicable to the undersea environment in addition to the surface-ship environment,” Galsgaard said.