Sun, Feb 18, 2018 - Page 2 News List

FEATURE: Experts lament barriers to UAV development

DRAWBACKS:Seeking government funding for drone development is difficult due to a limited budget, an expert said, while China is surging ahead with private investment

By Lin Chia-nan  /  Staff reporter

A Taiwan Typhoon and Flood Research Institute staffer operates a drone at the Hengchun Airport in Pingtung County in an undated file photo.

Photo provided by Taiwan Typhoon and Flood Research Institute

While local researchers, institutes and technology enthusiasts are keen to explore the applications that uncrewed aerial vehicles (UAVs) offer, many are hampered by a lack of funding, space for conducting experiments and regulations to monitor the industry’s development.

The Taiwan Typhoon and Flood Research Institute, a subsidiary agency of the National Applied Research Laboratories, is planning to use an Australian-made drone that can fly straight into the eye of a storm to collect data.

The program is a collaboration between the institute, the Central Weather Bureau, National Taiwan University (NTU) and other agencies.

Since 2003, Aerospace Industrial Development Corp airplanes have been used to gather data on typhoons under the Typhoon Hunting Program and the Dropwindsonde Observations for Typhoon Surveillance Near the Taiwan Region, institute deputy director-general Feng Lei (鳳雷) said.

The Typhoon Hunting program can elevate the precision of a forecast by about 6 percent, but storm forecasting has hit a bottleneck, institute assistant technologist Jung Chi-june (鍾吉俊) said.

“We can grasp the path of a typhoon, but how strong its structure would be and how much damage it would cause on land need more study,” Chung said.

That is why drones are needed to get deeper into a storm, he said.

While drones were deployed to measure Typhoon Hato last year and Typhoon Nepartak in 2016, they could only hover on the storms’ edges due to technical issues, Chung said.

However, the institute is hoping to make better progress this year. It is to conduct trial runs of its drone — the Aerosonde MK 4.7 — on the campus of National Ilan University from March 5 to March 9.

If successful, the drone would fly straight into a storm this summer, Feng said.

The drone was made by the Australian company Aerosonde Pty and equipped with a weather observation sensor, a satellite communication system, and a self-driving and self-landing system, the institute said, adding that it cost about NT$4 million (US$136,323).

Progress in the local UAV industry has been hampered by the lack of technology to manufacture drone engines and space for conducting trial runs, Feng said, adding that the institute had to drop several plans to use drones for other monitoring purposes due to a lack of funds.

The nation has technicians capable of producing such engines, said Lin Po-hsiung (林博雄), institute consultant and an associate professor at NTU’s Department of Atmospheric Sciences.

For example, Cheng Tsung-yi (鄭宗毅), a Taiwanese technician who used to work for Aerosonde, is experienced in refitting drone engines, Lin said, adding that there are many other Taiwanese who have pertinent skills.

Having locally made drones would enable researchers to install additional devices they need, but the nation lacks a resourceful coordinator who can pool the necessary experts and funding, Lin said.

Seeking funding is difficult because the government has a limited budget, while most businesses do not want to invest in aircraft that might break down after only one flight, he said.

The nation’s restricted air space is another barrier to drone development, Lin said.

While many believe bolder experiments can lead to universal good, when it comes to air space, most countries become more conservative and tend to defend their territorial sovereignty first, Lin said.

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