Is it now time to introduce an unmanned air vehicle network to help manage global catastrophes like the Indian Ocean tsunami?

As the world struggles to come to terms with the dimensions of the Indian Ocean tsunami disaster, the role of air power as a positive tool in delivering aid is once again to be acknowledged. The collective efforts of air forces and chartered transport operators have been central to all aspects of the relief effort, from initial reconnaissance of affected areas to evacuation of the injured and ongoing provision of vital supplies. This latter role will undoubtedly continue for months, with airlift an essential component of the assistance being provided by Western nations.

In the aftermath of this catastrophe a variety of proposals have been made to reduce the impact of future natural disasters in the region. High on the agenda is the concept of an Indian Ocean tsunami monitoring network similar to that in place around the Pacific Ocean.

From India, however, comes another pointer. Since the waves struck its south-eastern shoreline on 26 December, the nation's defence forces have been using unmanned air vehicles with electro-optic and infrared sensors to assist with the evaluation of the devastation and to locate survivors. This action, being performed with tactical and medium-endurance UAVs, suggests that future development of unmanned systems technology will lead to UAVs having a key part in emergency service delivery.

India's use of UAVs in this role has a precedent. In 2000 NASA, through its former Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology (ERAST) programme, and the US National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration co-operated with the US State Department in developing a concept known as Project Peacewing as part of efforts to establish more efficient global disaster management.

Had it proceeded, Peacewing would have stationed a small fleet of high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs around the globe, able to be called into action at any hour of day or night to respond to events such as the Indian Ocean tsunami. Equipped with synthetic aperture radar, infrared and electro-optic sensors, the Peacewing aircraft would have been the first respondents, providing immediate assessments of the scale of damage. Carrying telecommunications transponders, the UAVs would have provided an immediate communications network for emergency services and aid agencies. If available on 26 December, the aircraft might have played a vital part in helping the world learn the true scale of the tragedy and they might have assisted in mobilising rescue resources.

It can be argued that all the services proposed for Peacewing are already available to the international community in the form of satellite communications and imagery systems. Such systems have been extensively used to good effect as part of the current aid effort. But what Peacewing offered was a 24/7 surveillance capability free of the inherent fly-over and revisit restrictions facing low-Earth orbit surveillance systems, with imagery and dedicated bandwidth being supplied at lower cost.

Peacewing never came to fruition because the technology, based on the Aerovironment Pathfinder Plus solar-powered HALE UAV, was not sufficiently mature. More importantly, the cost of the project was likely to have been borne solely by the USA, and more particularly the ERAST programme, despite efforts to internationalise the concept.

In this strengthened environment of international co-operation created by the Indian Ocean disaster, concepts such as Peacewing deserve fresh consideration, with efforts to secure US support an obvious starting point.

In the European context, such considerations should come as part of the European Commission's decision-making process for its seventh framework funding plan, due for release later this year. Efforts are already under way to include funding for civil UAV applications in that framework and a Peacewing-type initiative would address a broad range of scientific, technical and social agendas.

The potential to include technically advanced nations on the Indian Ocean rim in such a programme should be encouraged. This would offer a means of extending and cementing co-operative arrangements now in place to respond to the tsunami, and to assist in providing the transparency necessary to ensure this open-skies initiative is politically acceptable.

The events of 26 December have proved yet again that our planet can be ravaged by natural forces that man can never hope to control, but our mastery of the air offers new ways forward that can at least alleviate the worst of what our environment can hurl against us.

Source: Flight International