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Toughbook provides ground control for unmanned aircraft

In an application which appeals to the Boy Scout in us all, a Palmerston North manufacturer of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) has chosen Panasonic Toughbook ruggedised laptop and tablet computers to control ‘drone’ aircraft from the ground. UAVs have several military and civilian applications and are capable of flying into potentially hazardous locations with no risk to human life and at a substantially lower cost than that associated with manned aircraft.

Skycam UAV NZ Ltd manufactures the Kahu-Hawk Unmanned Aircraft System, which includes the Kahu UAV and the Hawk Ground Control Station (GCS). The aircraft has a 2.3 metre wing span, features a composite airframe and is powered by an electric motor; in short, it is the radio-controlled plane of the hobbyist's dreams. It carries a payload of cameras and other sensory equipment, ideal for surveillance, mapping and other applications. Meanwhile, the GCS is installed on SkyCam's ten Panasonic Toughbook CF30 and CF31 models, and seven CF-U1 + Mk2  tablet devices.

According to Rene Redmond, Skycam UAV director, the company sought appropriate laptops on which to run the GCS software several years ago.

"Our UAVs are used out in the field, typically for jobs considered too dull, too dirty or too dangerous for manned flights. The conditions in which the laptops must work are bumpy, dusty, occasionally wet and decidedly well outside of the office,"

By 'in the field', Redmond literally means whatever can be found outdoors, in fair weather or foul. "Our laptops are mounted in a Stormcase and are lugged all over the countryside, by the Army or by civilian operators. The case itself is knocked, bumped and jolted; when it is in use, the laptop has to be up to conditions which include extremes of cold and heat, light rain and dust. Ours is very much an outdoors environment."

Redmond says the UAVs are used locally and in Australia, fulfilling tasks including:

• Aerial surveys and mapping
• Air sampling
• Military tasks
• Tracking animal movements
• Filing promotional aerial video
• Mined Land studies (for rehabilitation)
• Erosion Control
• Studying thermal activity
• On-going design and sensor R&D

"Indeed, there are a host of other aerial tasks including search and rescue, fisheries and police surveillance and scientific research that UAVs can perform," he says.

Toughbook the top choice

Panasonic Toughbook came to the company's attention when it researched appropriate solutions. "We looked at several options and Toughbook came up as a viable solution-set with the right features. Panasonic is a recognised brand that's been around for decades with a reputation for quality," Redmond explains.

Described by CNET.com as '..the notebook equivalent of a [n Army] tank. With a force-field around it', the CF30/31 Toughbook is as tough as they come.

"This laptop has the world's most rugged design which includes drop-shock protection,  and MIL-STD-810G and IP65 certification," says Rachel McBeth, Comworth Panasonic product manager"

MIL-STD-810G is a United States Military standard which addresses a broad range of environmental conditions including: pressure; high and low temperatures; rain (including windblown and freezing rain); humidity, fungus, salt fog; sand and dust exposure; explosive atmosphere; leakage; acceleration; shock and vibration. Meanwhile, IP65 is an Ingress Protection rating which certifies that water projected by a nozzle (6.3mm) against the enclosure from any direction shall have no harmful effects.

What that means in practical terms, says McBeth, is that the CF30/31 models can withstand 100km/h winds, 18cm of rain per hour and absorb the impact of being dropped from a height of up to two metres.

Exceptional performance in exceptional conditions

Reliability is considered essential for the operation of the UAVs. "The laptop is in effect a virtual cockpit. If the machine fails, the UAV has an autopilot that incorporates a system failsafe which kicks in and brings it home, but you don't want to abort any missions, you want to be sure that the aircraft can complete the task at hand and get the data back safely," says Redmond.

SkyCam UAV has used the Panasonic machines for over three years now and in that time, has not had a single failure. "We've had a pretty good opportunity to put them through their paces," he agrees.

Attention to detail is evident with the machines, Redmond adds. "For example, even the USB ports are ruggedised, with a feature that screws in and seals peripherals. That's come in handy for our manual controller which works with the laptop to control certain functions on the aircraft; some of our operators get quite excited and can accidentally disconnect the controller, but that doesn't happen with the Toughbooks."

While the internals of any standard notebook can handle the GCS software, Redmond is unequivocal about the difference between ordinary computers and Toughbooks. "There is no way a standard machine would be up to the way that these machines are handled. From Army guys plodding across wild and rugged terrain in Waiouru to civilian mapping missions in the back of beyond, Toughbooks have proven to be reliable, capable and unflinching. As a result, there is no doubt that they are the right choice for our application."