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Digital Cameras in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) for Military and Commercial Uses
An Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) is an aircraft that flies without a human pilot onboard, controlled remotely or flown autonomously via pre-programmed flight plans or other automated guidance systems. Traditionally, UAVs were largely deployed in military missions, but are increasingly being adopted by civil applications including firefighting, law enforcement, assessment of natural disasters and environmental monitoring.
The modern UAV originated in the 1970s, motivated by the military’s need for a safe way in which to fly over high risk areas without endangering a pilot’s life. These flying missions would also benefit from a smaller, covert vehicle compared to a manned aircraft. Engineers in the United States started experimenting with smaller, slower, cheaper UAVs that mimicked large model airplanes. Their most important feature was the inclusion of small video cameras that could send images to ground-based operators in real-time. Work progressed through the 80s and early 90s as vehicles became larger and more capable, leading to a successful, wide deployment in the mid-90s. Thanks to their reconnaissance and tactical capabilities, UAVs are now a major component of the global war on terrorism.
UAVs are extremely flexible devices, and can be used for a variety of applications beyond current military, counterterrorism and law enforcement requirements. Technology development for civil applications began to emerge in the 1990s. Today, a wide range of international public service agencies and private corporations rely on UAVs for diverse, civil and commercial uses. UAVs are also an emerging business for the defence industry with a large potential for growth, at a time when the military worldwide is looking to cut back on big- ticket purchases such as fighter jets and navy ships. Combined with the aforementioned applications, the demand for UAVs in general and imaging cameras in particular is growing.
The imaging subsystem of a UAV relies on a variety of enabling technologies including sensors, computing devices and wireless communications. A typical platform would comprise of multiple digital cameras that interface to a geospatial processor. Georeferenced imaging data is distributed through a data networking switch fabric, making system configuration simple, extensible and flexible. The control computer is used to trigger the camera, store and prepare images for transmission while recording data such as camera settings, altitude and position that are attached to images as metadata. The data is then sent to the UAV ground station via a state-of-the-art wireless network capable of achieving real-time wireless data retrieval of large files. Modern UAVs are capable of capturing and streaming multi-megapixel, large format images and metadata.
The imaging control computer is normally decoupled from the flight control computer, with the two computers exchanging information in real time. Flight path and other mission requirements are programmed by ground station engineers into the mission planning software that feeds the autopilot with the data necessary to direct and control the aircraft during the mission.
Multiple cameras can be combined into a unique assembly to increase the sensing capabilities of the UAV system. A modular mounting scheme allows for multiple camera modules to be configured on a single camera frame assembly to suit the need of a specific mission. The multiple camera approach can be used to acquire a mix of colour, false colour and monochrome images covering the same target area. The cameras optical axis must be parallel to one another and their shutter synchronized to operate simultaneously. Image processing is then used to fuse together the various images to generate a single, highly detailed, color image.
Multiple cameras are also used to acquire oblique images, where typically one vertical and multiple oblique cameras are used simultaneously. The images produced by these systems allow for the three- dimensional reconstruction of a scene. The unique angles depicted in the images of ground features provide axial information of vertical sides.
Multiple cameras can be positioned in an array to allow full 180° high-definition snapshot images on the fly. This means that the system can take a single picture of an entire scene pulling vast amounts of information from the captured image. The level of detail and picture accuracy from this multi-camera approach far exceeds what would be possible from a single camera when combined with a wide angle lens, as a lens can introduce aberrations and reduce the level of detail at or near the edges of the image.
The downward facing cameras in the UAV can be used for orthophotography applications, an aerial photography technique that creates an image where the scale is constant over the entire image. Because the scale does not change with position on the image, it is possible to make accurate measurements of angles, areas and distances using relatively simple calculations. For this technique to work, the downward facing camera must be perfectly aligned to a 90 degree angle relative to the ground.
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