Date:24 March 2014
Originally designed for the military, SkyWatch’s Huginn X1 drone is now used by security companies, fire departments and search-and-rescue services globally…
Give it a quick glance, and you’d never guess what hides under the Huginn X1’s skin. It’s only when someone mentions the price – upwards of R700 000 – that you begin to suspect something special is lurking within.
That’s why PM jumped at an invitation to an exclusive demonstration of this deceptively modest-looking, high-tech reconnaissance flier.
Small, compact civilian drones have become commonplace, to the delight of hobbyist fliers and aerial photographic buffs alike. But even the fancy ones are mere toys when compared with Danish company SkyWatch’s Huginn X1. Originally designed for the military, this quadcopter is now used by security companies, fire departments and search-and-rescue services the world over. In fact, it sets the benchmark for compact, intelligence- gathering autonomous UAVs.
What makes it so special? Tinus Diedericks of Timeless Technologies, local distributors of the Huginn X1, explains: “This is one serious machine. Apart from the fact that it’s extremely portable and robust, it can be deployed in under one minute by operators with minimal training, it features both optical and thermal imaging cameras, and it can be flown completely autonomously.”
To the average person, the X1 seems outrageously expensive. Diedericks has a different view: “When you look at some of the problems that our clients face, it’s actually a cost-effective solution.”
A case in point is how international emergency teams handled clean-up operations after typhoon Haiyan, which hit the Philippines late last year. Says Diedericks: “The Huginn X1 made a real difference. When flying over that devastation, all that could be seen through the optical camera was green and rubble. All infrastructure was obliterated and roads were non-existent. But as soon as its thermal camera was switched on, people could be seen dotted all over the place.” This allowed rescue teams to concentrate their efforts where they were most needed – helping to save many lives.
Closer to home, search-and-rescue personnel called to find a missing hiker in a gorge near Stellenbosch asked Diedericks to help. The terrain was rugged and overgrown, so spotting the hiker using normal methods was impossible. “All I did was fly the Huginn along the gorge until the infrared camera picked up his heat signature.
Once he was located, I could see his co-ordinates on the map displayed on my base station’s screen and directed the rescue team to his exact location. In next to no time, they found him injured, but alive.”
Security surveillance is another area where the Huginn excels. It is particularly effective at busting bad guys in the act at night, thanks to its ability to fly complex pre-determined routes via multiple waypoints, intelligently counter the effects of wind while in flight, and operate in silence. Other applications include identifying fire hot spots to help protect firefighters, crowd control, checking pipelines or slime dams for spillage, monitoring dam walls for cracks, and forestry control.
Another plus: insurance companies aren’t exactly renowned for their altruism. So when they’re prepared to back a product financially, the obvious implication is that it has to be okay. Interestingly, the Huginn X1 comes with R110 million worth of third-party liability cover per claim from Lloyd’s of London. So, if a component fails and it crashes into a crowd, you’re covered.
Getting the job done
Capable of remaining airborne for around 25 minutes, the X1 has a guaranteed range of 2,5 km. “Although its video, data and telemetry transmitters have been tested to 5 km, we recommend they fly only half that distance,” says Diedericks. “Otherwise, operators could be tempted to push the envelope, potentially causing them to lose contact with the drone and crash due to unforeseen circumstances.”
It can be flown either via the base station’s touch screen or by using its joystick controller. Built-in downward-facing sonar acts as a safety feature, preventing it from hitting the ground. The only way to get it to land is by pressing the dedicated landing button. There’s also a “dead man’s switch”, allowing you to immediately turn everything off and make it fall out of the sky if you see you’re heading into trouble.
All inner components are epoxy-coated, making them immune to water ingress. Plus, the four brushless electric motors let water pass straight through. Says Diedericks: “I once crashed one into a dam by mistake and it became completely submerged. All that needed replacing were the batteries and connectors.”
Importantly, it also features a fully functional black box that starts recording the moment you switch on the blades. Once the flight is over, its data can be plugged into a PC, prompting it to auto-launch Google Earth and recreate the entire flight.
For more information, contact Timeless Technologies on 0861 846 383 or visit www.timetech.co.za