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Unmanned Aviation System for Use in Emergencies at Sea Successfully Tested

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A small airplane above the sea. © DGzRS​/​TU Dort­mund
The unmanned fixed-wing aircraft has already flown safely over some 660 sea miles.

Together with nine partners, including TU Dort­mund University, the German Maritime Search and Rescue Association (DGzRS) has successfully tested an unmanned aviation system over the Baltic Sea that can be employed in emergencies at sea. Launched three years ago, the research project LARUS – which is Latin for seagull – has culminated in an automatic fixed-wing aircraft that has already flown safely over some 660 sea miles (roughly 1,220 kilometers). In the future, a more developed version could improve communications and data exchange when coordinating search and rescue measures under severe operating conditions – and thus save lives. The Federal Ministry of Education and Research funded the program under the Research for Civil Security program.

“At sea, the actual rescue will still be carried out by people in rescue cruisers and helicopters. But, if they fly automatically, unmanned aviation systems can deliver additional com­mu­ni­cation capacity and immediate situation photos,” says DFzRS CEO Captain Udo Helge Fox, underlining the importance of the research.

For the first time, LARUS integrated an unmanned aviation system in a search and rescue scenario for people in distress at sea in German waters off the coast of Vorpommern, between Rügen and Usedom, that is, in the DFzRS’s area of competence. “The aim was to trace a dummy in the Baltic Sea. The LARUS demonstrator quickly found the object, transmitted the data to the rescue cruiser Berthold Beitz and the Maritime Rescue Coordination Center in Bremen, and guided the rescuers safely to the ‘shipwreck victims,’” reports DGzRS scientist and head of the project, Thomas Lübcke.

Real-time transmission of situation photos to users

The LARUS system has its own modified transponder for the standard maritime Automatic Identification System (AIS). This enables it to localize location transmitters that are integrated in modern life vests. Usually, the AIS signals can only be received within a small radius of the person in the water. The LARUS system can track them from the air and pass on the data to the rescue units that have not yet reached the scene.

As part of the LARUS project, an unmanned fixed-wing aircraft with a wingspan of 3.6 meters was developed to meet the demands of the sea rescue service. “Using the LARUS demonstrator we tested various components for optical and sensory tracking as well as novel concepts for reliable wireless networking. All the components transmit live in­for­mation to the ground from where the safety of flight operations can be constantly monitored,” says the coordinator of the research alliance, Professor Christian Wietfeld, head of the Communication Networks Institute at TU Dort­mund. “The point is to provide very efficient technology to support rescuers working under particularly difficult conditions.”

With LARUS, scientists often found themselves breaking new ground. For the first time in German civil airspace over the sea, an unmanned aviation system with roughly 25 kilos take-off weight was moved. It reliably transmitted real-time situation photos to various users at the same time.

Moreover, the Bundesnetzagentur allocated LARUS the first German frequency for an automatic fixed-wing aircraft in the Search and Rescue Service (SAR). In terms of flight the system fulfilled all the project management’s expectations.

A group of people standing behind a small plane. © DGzRS​/​TU Dort­mund
Coordinated the research project LARUS: Prof. Christian Wietfeld (r.).

So far, these test flights, which are of importance both for aviation and for rescuers, are unique. LARUS will be continued until the end of the year in order to secure the results and create a basis for determining the need for further development that will make the system operational on a sustainable basis.


More Information

Research project LARUS
German Maritime Search and Rescue Association


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