The detection and identification of chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear and explosive (CBRNe) threats has traditionally been a costly and painstaking endeavour for the military and for other civilian actors such as protection forces (border police, fire brigades etc.). Aside from the obvious risk of exposure for counter-CBRNe personnel, neutralising the threats demands complex sampling and analysis procedures, particularly in the bio- and chemical areas, to avert or mitigate their effects.
This article has first been published in EDA's 'European Defence Matters' magazine N° 19 published in June 2020.
If the time, expense and personnel required to carry out such tasks could be telescoped, the world would be a far more secure place. Indeed, new technologies – and new combinations of existing technologies – hold great promise in that regard.
The European Defence Agency (EDA) and the European Space Agency (ESA) aim to do just that with their novel approach to the CBRNe sector, one that promises high levels of deployability, safety, speed, accuracy and reliability for detecting and identifying threats. The two Agencies have supported European industry in developing a concept, which is only a step or two away from the industrial production stage, meaning it could be rolling out to Europe’s defence and civil first-responder communities in just a few years.
Welcome to AUDROS (‘Autonomous Drone Services in the CBRNe operations’), the joint EDA/ESA project that combines satellite-based services with Remotely Piloted Aircraft System (RPAS) technologies. The resulting capability would have a wide range of applications for many different users, ranging from defence forces to first responders (police, emergency response, firefighters, etc.) to industry (transport, energy, critical infrastructure security, etc.).
Joint call for proposals
AUDROS has evolved over several stages and is now poised to tackle the core of its development work. Its two sponsoring partners laid down the project’s initial groundwork with a preceding Implementing Arrangement, signed in March 2017. This was followed by a workshop open to defence and civil stakeholders and subsequent interactions in order to assess the requirements of all the interested Member States. EDA’s CBRN research and technology expert network played a central role in capturing defence specific needs and requirements.
That, in turn, saw the definition of a joint call for proposals to study the design and function of a prototype system. “We received a solid number of proposals, matching our requirements for new CBRNe detection-identification-monitoring capabilities and services, making it a genuine success,” said Shahzad Ali, EDA moderator for CapTech CBRN & Human Factors1.
AUDROS was one of the awarded teams of the one-year feasibility study contract worth €350,000. The Consortium was made up of four partners: the two Czech companies BizGarden (as prime) and GINA Software, the Polish company Cervi Robotics, and the Czech Ministry of Defence research institution known as VTU. “The main purpose of the study was to look at AUDROS’s technical analysis, economic viability, the added value brought by the space-based data, new possible applications and, of course, the crucial ability to deal with CBRNe threats,” observed Ali.
RPAS hangar system
Starting in early 2018, the joint EDA/ESA team analysed the solutions proposed by industry to meet user needs for CBRNe countermeasures, with the study’s results assessed in December of that year. It laid out the definition of an RPAS hangar system. The ultimate goal? To enable fully autonomous beyond-visual-line-of-sight drone operations equipped to carry out day or night-time detection of persons and equipment, and search and map radiation sources, chemical warfare agents or toxic industrial pollution.
The joint team then witnessed in late 2018 the successful demonstration of a proof-of-concept system for AUDROS. This comprised a modified off-the-shelf quadcopter RPAS with a maximum take-off weight of 25 kg (including payload of up to 9 kg) and a hangar. Equipped with lightweight sensors for radiation and gas detection, AUDROS’ test scenario focused on detecting a chemical near a large industrial site by sending the drone to ‘sniff out’ the agent’s molecules and location. This was demonstrated during the prototype system’s outdoor flights around the facilities of project partner VVU.
“Space technologies are a crucial component of AUDROS”, said Beatrice Barresi, ESA’s Project Officer. “Satellite Navigation allows us to command the RPAS and to monitor the position of the rescue team in the field. That is not all: satellite imagery are needed to visualise the situation and to provide best available data to command the RPAS. Last but not least, satellite communication protects data transfer towards remote dispatch/command.”
Just as important was the study’s recommendations for the design and construction of AUDROS’s drone hangar. The prototype’s portable hangar, which was connected to a fixed power source, was designed to enable the drone to autonomously re-charge its battery. Expanding on this design in future to enable auto-switching of detection suites, for example, would significantly increase the flexibility and duration of AUDROS-based missions, particularly if several drones and hangars were deployed at the same time.
That, however, is for the project’s next and crucial phase, namely the deployment of AUDROS in a fully operational scenario. The payload will be modular in design and industrially scalable for commercial production.
The Czech-Polish consortium is expected to receive a new contract to build the pre-operational service, which will be financially supported by EDA and ESA.
“The Covid-19 pandemic has fortunately not adversely impacted the rolling out of the project, namely because AUDROS’s demonstration budget had been earmarked,” said Ali. “Thus, this 18-month contract will go ahead as planned, with the idea of signing off on it by the summer.”
“Engaging projects swiftly is a critical means at our disposal to respond to the pandemic’s adverse effect on the economy at large and the space industry in particular. ESA, with its partner EDA, is therefore fully engaged to proceed as soon as possible with agreed projects in order to channel much needed resources to protect Europe’s essential industrial base in these unprecedented times”, added Florent Mazurelle, ESA’s Principal Security Strategy Officer.
The demonstration project will expand the prototype’s technical design by incorporating drone payloads for the mapping and visual day/night detection of persons, as well as situational awareness from integrated satellite services. Its hangar will be able to either recharge a drone’s battery or swap it out for a newly recharged one. Doing so would mean that a fleet of drones, combined with one or more hangars, could carry out 24/7 execution of CBRNe-missions across a relatively wide operational area.
“Indeed, the combination of sophisticated detection-identification and monitoring suites with the diverse array of satellite services promises to produce a powerful dual-use CBRN-protection capability for Europe’s military and civil users. And it would have many cross-over links to other EDA research goals in the areas of counter-terrorism, harbour protection, protection of critical infrastructure, logistics and in-theatre medical surveillance, to name just a few. The spill over benefits, in other words, could radiate out in many directions”, concluded Ali.
EDA’s research collaboration with ESA got off the ground in June 2011 when the two organisations signed their Administrative Arrangement on cooperation, which, above a tightly knit policy dialogue, has now given birth to cooperative projects in countless domains such as cyber defence, critical technologies for European non-dependence, Earth observation, secured satellite communications, to name but a few.
AUDROS was a logical outgrowth of the EDA’s Joint Investment Programme on CBRN Protection, which it launched in 2012 to stimulate R&T work in the defence sector among its Member States and their industries.
1 The European Defence Agency’s work in the Research & Technology domain is in line with the Agency’s mission to support Member States in their efforts to improve defence capabilities. EDA organises its R&T priorities in different Capability Technology Areas (CapTechs), which are networking fora for experts from government, industry, small and medium enterprises (SME) and academia, moderated by EDA.