When the Office of Emergency Management in Bergen County, New Jersey, went shopping for a drone, it had a few criteria. The platform had to be robust and capable of rapid deployment in emergency situations. It also had to be dead easy to use, even on complex missions, and completely secure. Nothing spells 'lawsuit' like a renegade drone with "Property of Bergen County" printed on the side.
The dilemma facing the Bergen County procurement team is one that law enforcement and emergency response agencies all over the country, and indeed the world, are confronting as drones become standard kit in the sector. By and large there have only been two options for these agencies: invest hundreds of thousands of dollars in industrial or military-grade UAVs, or buy off-the-shelf consumer products, which can be capable platforms but aren't optimized for emergency response.
One company, Brussels-based EagleEye Systems, believes the answer lies not in new hardware, but in an intelligent operating system that can be adapted to suit a variety of specialized situations.
"We came to the conclusion that the first generation of drones was dumb," Geoffrey Mormal, founder and CTO at EagleEye Systems. "There were some autopilot consoles, but those cost north of $150K, which is not really what police or firemen are looking to use. And those consoles do not come with any ability to define complex missions."
Mormal also saw business needs that weren't being met by the current drone offerings. "If you're inspecting offshore platforms," he says, "and you're measuring a lot of data, you needed to fly back after twenty minutes, download that data, and then make your evaluations. That's not efficient. If you can detect a problem with your oil platform or a crack in your wind turbine in real time while the drone is flying the mission, you can decide to zoom in, investigate further. There was nothing on market that allowed you to do that."
EagleEye was founded in 2012 by Mormal and his partners, all registered pilots. They began developing an operating system to create a second generation UAV, one with a brain on board that could make decisions based on real-time inputs from sensors and cameras, and that didn't need a pilot to constantly oversee the mission, which traditional UAVs do. This allows for missions with risk and precision requirements that are beyond a human pilot's capability. Because they could work with existing hardware providers and couple their operating system with drones already on the market, the total cost for the new functionality would be lower than the high-end UAV solutions currently on the market.
After three years of development, testing and sensor integration, EagleEye developed the EagleEye on-board expert system, which allows the creation of behavioral rules based on sensor inputs and provides what the company calls "a NATO-standard secured communications and operational multi-cast solution."
The system can run on planes, quadcopters, and unmanned land vehicles, and the user interface runs off of a tablet.
Which brings us back to Bergen County. The Office of Emergency Management specifically wanted drones for search and rescue operations and emergency monitoring situations. That includes locating missing persons and traveling into hazardous locations to monitor and report on fires.
"Today we take a step into the future," said Lt. Matthew J. Tiedemann, emergency management coordinator for Bergen County, in a statement. "With this new generation of Smart UAVs, from EagleEye Systems, we will save lives while also adding efficiency to our emergency operations, which will also save money for our taxpayers."
In addition to the UAV deployment, EagleEye will also provide Bergen County support to set up a flight department, train pilots, and help the county meet all FAA requirements.