Unmanned Aerovel Flexrotor Guides Fleet Through Choking Ice
November 2, 2016
Becomes a Vital Asset for Offshore Work North of Alaska
Many weeks of slow and costly slogging through ice and fog might have been in store for a workboat fleet, sent a thousand miles from the nearest port to retrieve massive anchors from mooring sites spread across the Beaufort and Chukchi Seas. But the lead ship was equipped with Flexrotor, a small unmanned aircraft built specifically for long-range imaging reconnaissance at sea. It had been brought as an experiment, but as soon as it started flying it turned into an essential tool. Little more than two weeks later, after five flights totaling 19 hours, the mission was complete. Flexrotor had guided the fleet through the labyrinthine ice; all of the seafloor gear had been retrieved; and the fleet was bound for home weeks ahead of schedule.
Video from the aircraft became the most compelling show onboard, especially for the seasoned ice pilot responsible for navigating the ship to its targets. Video was also followed with keen interest by web viewers in Alaska and the “lower 48,” streamed in real-time through the boat’s satellite link. Occasionally their view was clouded by fast-forming fog – a common problem that, together with the cold and distance from help, makes manned-aircraft reconnaissance a daunting proposition over the Arctic. Low visibility would have put a helicopter’s crew in danger, but Flexrotor simply returned to the fog-shrouded ship, landed automatically, and waited for the skies to clear. The whole reconnaissance operation was much safer and more practical than any manned-aircraft option, and less costly.
“Flexrotor is in a class all its own for this sort of work,” said Matt Parker, vice president of Precision Integrated, which was contracted by Alaska’s Fairweather Science to execute the mission. “Its small footprint makes onboard setup quick and easy; launch and retrieval are done with no disruption to the ship’s activity; and its long range and endurance are immensely powerful. This was the first genuinely sustained and economically successful mission for unmanned aircraft aboard ship in the Arctic. We’ll soon be doing many more.”
“We are always careful to tread lightly in the Arctic and wanted to avoid breaking sea ice on this mission to minimize our environmental presence,” said Justin Blank, senior scientist and project manager at Fairweather Science. “Flexrotor’s imaging was vital, but its small size and low noise were big advantages as well. Precision’s team brought it aboard the client’s ship quickly and efficiently, and the high safety standards demanded for Arctic operations were exceeded from start to finish. Our client is extremely pleased to have the mission accomplished with low impact, low cost, low risk, and not a single safety incident. With such strong results, I see many applications.”
Flexrotor is dwarfed by the helideck while launching into the Arctic’s 24-hour sunlight.
Aerovel’s Flexrotor offers an unprecedented combination of small size, light footprint, long endurance, economy, and autonomy. It launches as a helicopter, transitions to wing-borne flight for efficient cruise, and then lands again as a helicopter. Current Mark 1 aircraft have over 15 hr endurance at 45 kt cruise speed. The forthcoming Mark 2 will offer more than 40 hr endurance. Maximum weight is less than 50 lb/22 kg. The Arctic aircraft carried a nose-mounted imaging turret supplied by Alticam Vision. Both Aerovel and Alticam Vision are based in the Columbia River Gorge. Information on Aerovel and Flexrotor can be found at https://www.aerovel.com, with videos at www.youtube.com/AerovelCo.
Precision’s Integrated Programs division is dedicated to providing unparalleled service and support to its customers and the broader unmanned systems industry. It runs unmanned programs for commercial interests, wildlife and environmental preservation bodies, humanitarian and disaster relief/emergency response organizations, and USG national defense, intelligence, and Homeland Security entities. More information can be found at www.flyprecision.com/integrated.
About Fairweather Science
Fairweather Science, LLC delivers efficient and effective solutions for the broad range of environmental science and logistic requirements requested by its clients. The Fairweather Science team is composed of experienced environmental professionals with a proven history of successful operations in Alaska and a strong commitment to safety, professionalism and environmental responsibility. For more information, please go to www.fairweathersciencellc.com/.
Feature photo: Flexrotor looks down on her base, an anchor handling tug supply vessel, surrounded by ice in the Chukchi Sea.
Photos/video courtesy of Fairweather Science, LLC.’s 2016 Arctic Program and Jake Weber, Precision Integrated.
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