What began as a flight test to see if his house was falling into the sea has become, for Nigel King, a high tech manufacturing business of international dimension. He tells Brian Nicholls how it happened
Fomer RAF pilot Nigel King has come through almost 200 air crashes unscathed to give Northumberland an edge in innovation.
But the crashes didn’t happen when he flew helicopters for Queen and Country. They came amid his development of a new generation of unoccupied aircraft that lift Britain into the advanced technology of photographic imagery that’s more detailed than that taken from a satellite or a helicopter. These aircraft have sometimes been called drones, which King eschews in favour of “UAVs”, unmanned airborne vehicles. “Drones in the public concept tend to capture this thing about the predator, the wreaker of death and destruction,” he explains. “We try through ‘UAV’ to get across its environmental concept so it hasn’t such a sinister background.”
Unmanned aircraft date back to 1919. But in the last five or six years advances in technology have raised major new opportunities for building and selling such aircraft, and for taking science forward globally in vital research, such as identifying new sources of water in lands of famine, and in providing new information on global warming. Understandably aerial maps and 3D models have drawn in the European Space Agency, British Antarctic Survey and many UK universities as King’s clients at his business, Quest UAV. Its missions have included photographing Chile’s Atacama Desert from 10,000ft at Nasa’s expense to help develop navigation software for the next generation Mars Rover.
As King explains: “Now’s the very time for non-military use of UAVs. In the right hands, they’ve vast potential for improving quality of life and for slashing costs of otherwise expensive aerial surveys.” His aerial photography has won him the coveted Fox Talbot Award, which the British Institute of Professional Photographers presents only occasionally. His work, he says, has been possible through pulling together the benefits from miniaturisation of electronic systems, enabling them to fit into miniature aircraft.
Also, the accuracy of global positioning satellite navigation (GPS) has been crucial to keep aircraft under the control of their pilots and commanders who remain on the ground. Digital cameras, too, are advancing what can be recorded from a great height and worked on. King says his growing business at Coquetdale Enterprise Park in Amble is unrivalled in Britain. Its main competition comes from a company in Belgium and one in Switzerland. His ingenuity arose with personal desire to measure how fast coastal erosion was threatening his home bought at the fishing village of Low Hauxley around 20 years ago.
He got directly involved after Northumbria University bought a Canadian-built UAV five years ago. University staff, although trained, weren’t totally confident about operating it. “There was a fear that in their hands it might end up in pieces within the first 10 seconds of flight,” King remembers. An appeal went out: did anyone locally know how to fly them? Nigel’s wife is Dr Helen King, a lecturer in geographical information systems at the university. She volunteered his services.
“I spent six months with the university as their ‘chief pilot’ on the project,” King recounts. “On examining the aircraft, I thought I could do better. That was in 2008. It has been a long haul but here we are in business five years later.” He knuckled down initially at Blue River Studios, a former business already combining his passions of flying and photography. It took about two and a half years to resolve all the issues. “A major one was to develop a launch system so reliable and easily operable that anyone could launch and recover the UAV. That involved up to 250 crashes. It took out eight or more aircraft, and I invariably rebuilt aircraft up to five times daily. The launch system works sweetly now and is a hallmark - virtually impossible to copy,” he adds gleefully. “While It looks simple, lots of thought and planning have gone into it.”
Its stubby body has a wingspan tall as a Harlem Globetrotter, likening it to a monstrous bumble bee. King found many limitations to the imported UAV he’d worked with, such as its airframe that made it hard to land. Its high speed was also a drawback, and its large turning circle made it impractical in Britain, due to UK restrictions on UAVs.
“The restrictions had good reason. Without them, many unskilled people might by now have been flying UAVs around the sky anywhere and everywhere, risking full-size aircraft, pilots, passengers and other people on the ground. It’s fine to fly small radio controlled aircraft from a recognised flying site. But if it becomes free to operate anywhere in the country, with the aircraft flying out of sight long distances and crashing or going out of control, that wouldn’t be a good scenario.”
Even if a Quest crashes, likelihood of damage is minimised. Its building materials comprise expanded polypropylene and other composites hard to work with but tough. King jumps up and down on a wing to prove his case. His website, indeed, has shown a car drive over the wing. Quest camera carrying UAVs are controlled on the ground by a pilot and a commander.
The commander monitors the aircraft’s ‘heartbeat’ and can predict the aircraft’s next moves. The pilot concentrates on the aircraft itself. A UAV’s bread and butter work lies in creating very high resolution maps. It flies back and forth, ‘lawnmower’ style.
The commander can tell the pilot if the aircraft is about to change direction or descend, the programme having been fed into the UAV’s brain long before take-off to follow a route determined by agreement with whoever requires the flight. Both pilot and commander can intervene in the movement during a flight however. On return, the UAV will yield up to 500 very high resolution images. These, pieced together, form an electronic mosaic, more accurate and faster achieved, thanks to their digital nature, than the earlier practice of joining up silver nitrate film.
Every picture is stripped to pixels, then pixel matching begins: “Say you have a church on three or four pictures. The process might pinpoint the top of the steeple and say ‘right, I’m going to match that point’. Then it might look for the top of a gate or root of a tree, and from there create a three dimensional image, all automatically.”
The clever camera needs clever software beyond Quest UAV’s abilities. “We use Russian software. There are a number of photographic programmes to serve our purpose too.”
A Quest UAV costs between £12,000 and £40,000 depending on the sensors and cameras carried. With video aboard, data can be transmitted in real time to the ground crew who can intervene if necessary to investigate some aspect more closely. Or infra-red cameras may be required. Some cameras can cost £12,000 and, if doubled up to work with multi-spectral and thermal cameras, that can be a £25,000 payload.
Universities tend to get discounts since King considers them to be strapped for cash, and partnerships created there can sometimes help develop better sensors too. In the UK, real helicopters provide the competition: “They’re very good if they stay within their limitations - like remaining close to an object. They can hover, get fairly close in and gather some good data, enabling maybe 100 square metres to be collated. Our strengths come when there’s need to go further afield, gathering larger areas of data.
“Quest UAVs are incredibly robust too. Invariably if helicopters come out of the sky that’s it. They’re in pieces. If ours do that it’s pick it up and throw it back up.” He makes the point with personal experience, having flown Gazelle, Puma, Wessex and Sea King helicopters during his 16 years in the forces, the final few years on air sea rescue duty at RAF Boulmer.
Members of two expeditions studying climate change have recently worked in Iceland and Svalbard, in northernmost Norway, using Quest UAVs to measure the rate of change in glaciers. Both York and Southampton Universities have bought Quests for Polar researches. King says it shows how quickly and competently the aircraft can be used by previously unskilled personnel. These are lecturers, not pilots. “They fly these aircraft competently, and don’t need a pilot’s licence if they’re not using the aircraft commercially. We provided training for Northumbria University also.
One individual did his training then only saw the aircraft again when it was beside him in his tent on the Arctic ice sheet, where he was living for three months. He unpacked the aircraft from its rugged case and got the data he wanted totally isolated from the outside world. He’d no direct support, only a text about once a week, and couldn’t ring back with problems. “While the weather wasn’t too bad, there was an issue around GPS, latitude and longitude, because the compass couldn’t be relied upon.
Everything’s different there. He worked where ice mixes with rock. Otherwise on a totally white landscape it could be very hard. But every picture notes its latitude, longitude and height, helping to make the mosaic easier.”
Several new prototypes are currently being worked on including one aimed at getting maximum endurance in bad weather. Another serves as a research vehicle for Newcastle University. Another government funded one being prepared to track and quantify fresh water. A Quest usually takes a month or two to build but it has been assembled within 10 days with all the staff working flat out.
So what about those erosion concerns that got him going in the first place? “I’ve since recorded the erosion myself through aerial photography. I now have what I started out to do five years ago, I have in three dimensional models a good history of what erosion has or hasn’t been happening. I know I’ll be able to live the rest of my days there without any problem. So I’m a happy man. The house will continue to have resale value and I’m sure my kids will take it over. I thought there were only about 15 years left. But it looks there’s at least 100 years left. That’s my major investment secure.”