Remote control: protecting vital national assets

UMS SKELDAR’s Global Business Development Director David Willems and Training Director and former RAF officer Ewen Stockbridge Sime.


No one, let alone professionals working in the security and defence industries, needs to be reminded of the vulnerability of core national infrastructure assets. The high profile attacks of 9/11 in New York and also the Pentagon in Washington DC, together with countless other incidents ranging from perimeter breeches of civil airspace and airports to catastrophic loss of people and assets, demonstrates all too clearly the vulnerability of essential infrastructure. 

From oil and gas pipelines and storage tanks to nuclear and power generation facilities, the requirement to ensure round the clock vigilance should be a priority in any strategic asset protection plan.

The US Department of Homeland Security defines 16 critical infrastructure sectors whose assets, systems, and networks, whether physical or virtual, are considered so vital to the United States that their incapacitation or destruction would have a debilitating effect on security, national economic security, national public health or safety, or any combination of these elements. These include:

Department of Homeland Security sector checklist:

  • Critical Infrastructure Sectors
  • Chemical Sector
  • Commercial Facilities Sector
  • Communications Sector
  • Critical Manufacturing Sector
  • Dams Sector
  • Defence Industrial Base Sector
  • Emergency Services Sector
  • Energy Sector
  • Financial Services Sector
  • Food and Agriculture Sector
  • Government Facilities Sector
  • Healthcare and Public Health Sector
  • Information Technology Sector
  • Nuclear Reactors, Materials, and Waste Sector
  • Sector-Specific Agencies
  • Transportation Systems Sector


The use of UAVs

What has to be considered when factoring in UAV strategies, is that many physical and electronic defence capabilities were developed before the advent of UAVs. This puts into sharp focus the threats and opportunities provided by Remotely Piloted Aircraft Systems (RPAS). On one hand they present a powerful and essential tool in the development of strategic security and preventative measure but on the other hand, they can also present a threat when used as hostile intel gathering or even physical attacks against a facility.

That is why it is essential that UAV deployment is placed in a strategic context. The obvious versatility of unmanned aircraft enables them to be an essential part of the assessment of risks from the outset. A fundamental role, either as part of a civilian or military organisation should include field assessments to identify vulnerabilities.


Emergency missions

UAVs can travel into airborne radioactive plumes without exposing pilots and crew to radiation. Pre-programmed UAVs may be able to undertake some missions while humans are busy with other necessary tasks. These capabilities can all be extremely useful after a nuclear accident, according to Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists.

For example, nuclear power plant owners and regulators in the United States are assessing whether unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) can perform key functions following accidents. UAVs may be able to supplement notification systems (for example, emergency sirens and tone-alert radios) by emitting siren-like sounds that alert people to turn on televisions and radios to hear official declarations about any precautionary measures authorities are recommending. UAVs may also be able to augment radiation monitoring by flying routes downwind of the stricken facility and relaying continuous radiation readings back to an emergency response centre. This radiation level information would fill in gaps between the existing ground-based detectors.


Unmanned aircraft have demonstrated a post-accident capability by flying around the Fukushima Daiichi site and sending back video and other information to workers seeking to understand the extent of the damage inflicted by hydrogen explosions.

Hurricane Katrina saw the first deployment of UAVs in a disaster, setting the stage for such UAV deployments worldwide — from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident to the Nepal earthquake. The hurricane was a landmark for UAV technologies, pivotal in their development for emergencies.

Katrina also contributed to policy changes that affect how UAVs deploy in disasters: military equipment is now easier to deploy, but when the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) “clarified” the certificate of authorisation requirement for drones in 2006, they created restrictions for civilian flights that remain controversial to this day.



Lessons from Katrina

The Center for Robot-Assisted Search and Rescue (CRASAR), as part of the Florida State Emergency Response Team assisting Mississippi — and, later, during Katrina assisting L3 Communications as part of aid to the New Orleans region — deployed small unmanned aerial systems to the areas affected by Hurricane Katrina. CRASAR provided a fixed-wing UAV, with permission from the U.S. Special Operations Command, and a customised miniature helicopter. Two days after Katrina made landfall, CRASAR remotely flew the vehicles in Pearlington, Mississippi. The town had been cut off; all the roads were blocked with fallen trees, and the phone lines were wiped out.

The mission: Determine whether people were stranded and in immediate distress and if the cresting Pearl River was posing an immediate threat. The UAV video feed showed that, while the area was heavily damaged, the flooding was subsiding and people were working on clearing out the trees and damage.

An additional inspection VTOL examined structural damage at seven multi-storey commercial buildings. The rotorcraft was able to provide views of the buildings from angles that were impossible to get from the ground or flyovers. The results not only helped engineers see that the storm’s wind damage was much less than expected but also led to a set of studies that would guide safe crew-organisation practices used by responders in the United States, Europe and at the site of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear accident.

The Katrina flights also showed structural inspection was not simply a matter of taking photographs. Structural specialists who viewed uploaded images had trouble comprehending the state of damage. Addressing such problems in “remote perception” remains a major open research question.


Rapid response

Since Katrina, UAVs have been used worldwide for disasters for two reasons. First, they provide better vantage points and higher-resolution images than satellites or manned planes and helicopters; second, they deploy faster, and responders can control them tactically.

Unlike a manned helicopter, or National Guard Predator that has to fly in from an airport or base, tactical teams can transport a UAV into a hot zone, deploy it on demand and immediately download imagery — a far simpler and faster process than requesting imagery from aircraft controlled and coordinated by a centralised authority which requires time, a multitude of people and importantly connectivity to achieve.


Friend or foe

A security aspect that has gained more traction in recent years relates to systems that deal with the increasing number of UAVs which accidently, or deliberately, are venturing close to, or even over, critical infrastructure areas where they simply should not be. Examples of UAV activity that has given cause for concern range from the multiple reports of unidentified drones flying near French nuclear power stations to near misses with civilian aircraft. In terms of responses to the UAV dilemma, a number of strategies are being reviewed. One answer is a multi-sensor UAV warning system, which reflects the reality that the size, speed, and shape of UAVs make identification extremely difficult for a single monitoring method. This utilises a system of interacting sensors to reliably detect all types of UAVs based on multiple parameters such as noise, shape, and movement patterns, with the processing done in the device itself or via cloud computing. Interestingly, the United States Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is evaluating types of anti-UAV system at US airports as part of its Pathfinder programme. No doubt, aviation agencies worldwide will follow trials with keen interest.


Serve and protect

New solutions such as UAV deployments are becoming a popular choice not just as new inspection devices but as defensive measures around critical infrastructure: power, network, emergency response and data centres.

Protecting critical intelligent infrastructure and smart grids include surveillance and remote monitoring. One way to achieve this is to deploy a UAV to monitor any suspicious activities as well as check the status of the condition of hard-to-reach cell towers and other network and power infrastructure. Even if UAVs are just used for routine inspections, they will reduce costs of deploying personnel in the field, and avoid potential accidents when technicians do not have to climb towers to perform routine inspections.



More than a quick fix

Nordic Unmanned, which amongst other activities performs lifting operations, pilotline pulling and re-locates pipeline equipment, has utilised UAV systems including UMS SKELDAR’s V-200 helicopter and the Lockheed Martin quadrotor Indago for Statnett, the Norwegian energy infrastructure provider. This project involves monitoring 11,000km of high-voltage power lines and 150 stations across Norway. Operations are monitored by one national control centre and three regional centres. Statnett is also responsible for the connections to Sweden, Finland, Russia, Denmark and the Netherlands.

https://vimeo.com/166709912 Video – in Norwegian

Statnett is a state enterprise, established under the Act relating to state-owned enterprises and owned by the Norwegian state through the Ministry of Petroleum and Energy. Earlier this year, a major breakthrough into lucrative construction and maintenance projects for power and utilities companies, was announced with the award of Europe’s first national license to use the SKELDAR V-200. Nordic Unmanned was awarded the SO3 license for SKELDAR V-200 use – the highest certification available – by the Norwegian Civil Aviation Authority. According to Nordic Unmanned CEO Knut Roar Wiig: “This is a landmark moment for not just the utility and construction maintenance sectors, but the UAV industry, with the first ever national clearance of SKELDAR providing the launch pad for operations across other European countries. Statnett sees as an interesting fit with their unmanned strategy for protection of personnel working on power cable projects and greater efficiencies.”