Malaysian UAV excels at some unusual missions

 - February 18, 2008, 10:43 PM

Beginning life as a research project at the Universiti Putra Malaysia’s (UPM) Department of Aerospace Engineering, the UPMX unmanned air vehicle has demonstrated its acumen in a number of innovative roles, and the team is eager to try more.

Rather than develop a pure research vehicle, UPM set out to produce a UAV that not only could be used for research, but also perform practical functions. To satisfy the latter requirement, it had to be able to fly in national airspace. Several serious acts of piracy in the Straits of Malacca and terrorist actions on two islands near Borneo in 2000 spurred the development in Malaysia of a practical UAV. The new UAV would have applications in both anti-piracy/terrorism surveillance, and also for civilian uses such as support of agriculture.

UPMX first flew in 2004. It is a small UAV with a pusher propeller mounted between twin tailbooms that carry an inverted-V tail. To flight-test it, the university established the Ladang Puchong UAV Flight Test Area (LUFTA). The two- by one-kilometer area is close to the university, near Kuala Lumpur. LUFTA has a 150- by 6-meter runway on high ground offering a good view of the whole area. It is situated in busy airspace, close to three airfields that include Kuala Lumpur’s international airport. To cater specifically to UAV operations, the Civil Aviation Authority established a virtual corridor system above LUFTA to keep other aircraft away when the UAVs are flying. This allows UAV flying up to 500 feet, with a minimum 2,000-foot separation.

As experience with the UPMX vehicle grew, the team sought to demonstrate its capabilities to a wider audience. In 2006 there were two main demonstrations to civilian authorities. The first was for the Malaysian Department of Irrigation and Drainage (DID). Malaysia experiences high rainfall and consequently suffers from regular flooding, for which the DID uses mathematical models to map patterns. The UPMX was brought in to show that it could monitor flood patterns for real, thereby validating the DID’s models. Operations were conducted in heavy weather along a four-kilometer stretch of the Kelantan River. The UAV carried a video sensor for the task.

The second demonstration was for the Malaysian Palm Oil Board (MPOB). The UPMX surveyed a large plantation at Teluk Intan in the state of Perak. The aircraft produced good imagery of the plantation, but the information proved insufficient compared with that provided via other means of survey. Nevertheless, the UPMX team learned many lessons about the applications of UAV technology.