South East Asia ponders unmanned future for border protection and surveillance

Sensor technology advances mean small tactical Unmanned Aerial Systems such as the Insitu ScanEagle can now perform maritime surveillance tasks previously only possible with larger aircraft.

ViDAR optical radar a key component of future surveillance

With some of the busiest shipping lanes in the world, thousands of island archipelagos and neighbours flexing their territorial muscles, South East Asia is understandably developing its maritime surveillance capabilities apace.

The world’s shipping crossroads is rich with high-value cargoes. Each year a third of the world’s marine commerce, more than 120,000 ships, sail the Malacca and Singapore straits. They carry the bulk of Japan’s imported oil, iron ore and natural gas to fuel China’s growing industry and the electronics, cars and other manufactured goods powering Asian economies. International fishing and resources rights are prompting a growing emphasis on patrolling and protecting national maritime borders.

For those tasked with protection of these trade routes the challenges are growing. In addition to age-old foes such as weather, navigation and the logistical issue of patrolling literally thousands of islands (Indonesia alone has 95,000 km of coastline), security against pirates has moved up the list of priorities for shipping companies and national governments alike.

Between 1995 and 2013 South East Asia saw more than 40 per cent of the world’s pirate attacks, almost equivalent to those in the waters around Somalia and West Africa combined, some within an hour’s sailing time of Singapore harbour. Movement of illicit drugs and other contraband are placing more stress on law enforcement and Customs resources, and their budgets.

For many, this is an environment ripe for the use of unmanned aerial systems (UAS) in both civil “parapublic” and military roles. With their ability to loiter or patrol for 24 hours or more, unmanned aerial vehicles are being tested as loitering eyes in the sky above major shipping routes, port entries and illegal activity “hot spots”, to follow high-value cargo vessels and as almost invisible spies to record illegal activity for fast-response law enforcement agencies.

Developments in small-engine technology, battery and power sources, lightweight communications and sensor electronics and composite airframes have combined to create long-endurance aircraft that can be launched and recovered by a patrol vessel, relay real-time intelligence and be retasked at will.

Singapore has operated the Insitu ScanEagle tactical UAS since 2011. In 2017 the US Coast Guard cutter Stratton took a ScanEagle UAS aboard for practical evaluation on a border protection cruise. In its six-week trial the three-metre wingspan ScanEagle flew 39 sorties, spending 279 hours in the air. Its electro-optical and thermal sensors were augmented by the Sentient Vision ViDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) “optical radar”, which autonomously detects man-made objects on the sea surface and beams an image and location of each to the UAS system’s operators.

Stratton returned to port after detecting and seizing more than US$55 million worth of illegal drugs.

Long favoured for their ability to fly the “dull, dirty and dangerous” missions, UAS systems are coming in to their own as border patrol and fisheries protection assets. In 2017 the European Maritime Safety Agency awarded its first contract for a maritime surveillance and environmental monitoring system based on drones.
For Simon Olsen, Sentient Vision’s Director of Business Development, Strategy and Partnerships, new airborne technologies such as ViDAR are redefining the surveillance capability of smaller airframes.

Sentient’s Visual Detection and Ranging (ViDAR) system is a self-contained unit comprising high- resolution digital video cameras and software that analyses the resulting image feed to detect objects against an ocean background. The system autonomously detects, tracks and photographs each contact, transmitting the image in real time to a ground station or on-board mission systemwhere operators can then cross-cue the aerial platform’s primary electro-optical sensor to the contact by simply clicking on the image.

ViDAR’s cameras cover 180 degrees, dramatically increasing the detection area or “swathe” ahead and abeam of the UAV or manned aircraft, allowing it to cover an area up to 80 times greater than an identical aircraft without the ViDAR system in a single sortie.

With its compact size, low weight and minimal power requirements, the ViDAR system is equally at home on a tactical UAS, helicopter, small fixed wing aircraft or military maritime patrol platform, giving South East Asian governments and law enforcement agencies more options when considering the platforms and systems needed to effectively patrol their home waters.

“ViDAR has the power to change acquisition decisions in hardware and aircraft, to change capability mixes,” Olsen said. “Offshore patrol vessels previously dependent on shore-based aerial surveillance can now deploy their own. What could previously only be accomplished with a manned aircraft can now be accomplished with a tactical unmanned aerial system, and missions that previously needed large aircraft can now be accomplished with smaller, more cost effective airframes or helicopters.

“ViDAR brings wide area maritime surveillance and detection within the reach of operators for whom this type of capability was previously outside the realms of technical possibility. “It combines the most effective capabilities of both radar and optical sensors, without the limitations of either.”

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