“The thing that we found most attractive about your LiDAR when we started using it was just their size and capabilities on our aircraft. Even on a 10 foot wingspan aircraft we don’t have a ton of margin for weight, so it’s a nice, small, simple solution that works well. I mean the LW20 is just 10 grams.” – Jack Elston, CEO, Black Swift Technologies LLC
Black Swift Technologies focus on unmanned aircraft systems (UASs) specifically for scientific research applications like volcano, hurricane, glacier and wildfire monitoring. They also specialize in “outside of the box” environmental monitoring, ranging from remote sensing to active sensing using UASs. Black Swift Technologies are unique in that they design most of the components used in these unmanned systems themselves.
To this end, Black Swift has their own autopilot system designed from scratch, including the control algorithms and boards. They also design their own aircraft – with three currently in circulation. These craft are available directly for sale, with Black Swift offering pilot training, or are designed and developed for a client with their specific requirements in mind.
Currently, Black Swift has three unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs). The first is a fixed wing, with a three meter wingspan and has most recently been used for volcano monitoring in Alaska. For this particular project, they flew out nearly 25 kilometers to map about a square kilometer of the top of a volcano. This had to be done four separate times. Encountering up to 50 knot winds and significant downdraft, the mission was made even more challenging with full cloud cover and near-zero visibility.
Black Swift also has a smaller vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft with about a meter wingspan, that has been used in weather monitoring and research on a project with the US Air Force. The third craft, a multi-copter, was developed for a client in Spain and is mostly used for wind turbine inspections.
To effectively perform volcano monitoring missions using unmanned craft requires that the fixed wing fly as low as possible, hugging closely to an active volcano. This is also often undertaken during high winds and unpredictable weather conditions, like limited visibility. These missions require that the UAV must cover a large area, while ensuring sufficient information is retrieved – which is tricky. It’s thus crucial that the payload cannot have a large power requirement as this will reduce flight time. Also, these missions require highly accurate take-off, landing and height above ground monitoring.
An example of one of Black Swift’s projects, where they collaborated with NASA, was to monitor the amount of carbon dioxide (co2) being released from vents on the side of a series of volcanoes. As co2 disperses in the atmosphere very quickly, and there’s always a high background of co2 in the atmosphere, it’s hard to measure. The challenge in this case was that the fixed-wing had to cover long distances, while flying extremely close to the ground.
Elsewhere, the multi-copter that Black Swift developed for a client in Spain is mostly used for wind turbine inspections. In this case, it is essential that the multi-copter is able to fly up to the wind turbine and maintain a safe distance (so as not to damage itself or the turbine). It’s also important that the multi-copter scans all sides of the blades and sends back a report for any required maintenance to be performed. Being highly time sensitive, all of this needs to be undertaken within 15 minutes.
Lastly, Black Swift has a VTOL aircraft currently in use with the US Air Force. It is typically required to take off from the ground and fly about seven kilo-meters straight up, providing a rapid wind profile of the atmosphere. This supplies the Air Force with useful information on aircraft operations, resupply drops and other similar operations.
When conducting research, particularly instance weather or natural phenomena monitoring, reliability, accuracy and the safe autonomous operation of a craft are critical.
To this end, Black Swift Technologies employ the use of multiple LightWare LW20 LiDAR sensors to assist with applications such as precision take-off, landing, hovering, height above ground measurement and altimetry functions. The LightWare LW20 LiDAR sensor is IP-rated (waterproof), works in all weather conditions and has a low power requirement, not impacting the flight time of a UAV. This has proven to be a key component in the success of Black Swift’s projects.
Black Swift Technologies continues to conduct research and observation projects in and around volcanoes in Alaska. This is because these volcanoes are emitting increased levels of co2, which usually means the magma has moved closer to the surface. While an eruption is not necessarily imminent, Black Swift wants to ensure that there aren’t any particulates being released in the air that are dangerous to aircraft (as all aircraft flying from the US to Canada, China and Japan fly over this area). They also want to monitor for any potential of emitted gases that may be dangerous to the local populations.
Black Swift Technologies are also involved in hurricane research and observation, requiring consistent and accurate measurement of weather offshore. As a result, they need to accurately track height above the sea and the actual size of sea waves. For this research, they use LiDAR to accurately determine the height of the water as well as the height of rough seas or swells. This all contributes to important data that can be added to the data samples already collected, giving insight to larger hurricane and weather phenomena.