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English
11/30/2013

Austrian army drones can recognize a lot, but not everything

The Austrian Armed Forces are buying 18 light tracker drones that are primarily intended to help protect soldiers in the field. They are not capable of facial recognition.

At the beginning of April 2013, the Austrian Armed Forces announced that they intend to acquire 18 umanned aerial vehicles (UAV). At the beginning of October, it was announced that Kapsch had won the supply contract for these drones. Kapsch bid as a sales partner of Survey Copter, a French company that specializes in the development and manufacture of mini-UAVs and surveillance tools.

“These drones are intended to expand the aerial reconnaissance capabilities of the Austrian Armed Forces,” said Colonel Reinhard Zmug, the head of the military drone project, explaining the acquisition. The unmanned aerial vehicles are to be used for aerial monitoring on foreign missions, and for reconnaissance after natural disasters in Austria, among other things.

Good experiences with drones

The six drone systems for the Austrian Armed Forces, which consist of 18 drones in total, are type DRAC/Tracker UAVs. Three million euros are being invested. Two drone systems will be delivered by the end of 2013. There is one control unit per system. One drone in the system is used in the air, while the other two are kept as replacements.

“We are already using drones in Kosovo,” Zmug said, “They are provided by a civilian company.” Zmug gave a concrete example of a scenario in which drones can be helpful: “We had a bishop being consecrated in a city and monitored from the air to see if demonstrations or groups of people were forming around the location of the event. Such information allows us to coordinate ground troops better, and to take action that will deescalate potentially dangerous situations at an early stage.”

A light 8.5 kilograms and portable

Survey Copter is already manufacturing the Tracker UAV for EADS’s military technology division Cassidian. The Tracker weighs 8.5 kilograms and can be carried on a person’s back like a backpack. A two-man team is needed to launch and operate the drone. According to Cassidian, the Tracker can be used in all weather conditions and can be launched in any environment – mountains, flatlands, or densely built-up areas.

When ready to launch, the Tracker is 1.6 meters long and has a wingspan of 3.60 meters. The drone can be remote controlled at a range of up to 10 kilometers, and can remain aloft for 90 minutes on a single charge. The vehicle can fly at an altitude of up to 3,000 meters and has a maximum speed of 100 kilometers per hour.

Fully automatic operation

According to Cassidian, the Tracker is ideally used for reconnaissance, surveillance, target identification, or convoy security. Convoy security is also important for the Austrian Armed Forces. Zmug explains the system’s potential for a mission in Chad: “We have the drone fly ahead of the convoy at a distance of two to three kilometers so that we can recognize potential danger in advance, such as approaching vehicles, bad weather, or roadblocks. The convoy can then be diverted if necessary. Soldiers are not exposed to additional risks.”

The Tracker can fly predetermined routes fully automatically. It determines its location using GPS or an inertial sensor. The double electric drive is very quiet, so the drone is difficult to detect. The UAV is equipped with a panning and tilting video camera for daylight conditions and a night-vision camera. The recorded images are transmitted in real time over an encrypted wireless connection.

Data protection training

Because of the limited load capacity of the drone, the daylight camera has a moderate-resolution sensor and a 12-power optical zoom. “You can recognize people from a distance of roughly 200 meters, for example based on the clothing they are wearing or the weapons they are carrying,” Zmug explained. The Tracker does not allow facial recognition, he said. “You would need a larger device for that. The cameras on a police helicopter are capable of a great deal more, for example.”

Zmug stressed that the Austrian Armed Forces are obligated to comply with all EU data protection regulations: “We also expressly train our personnel to only conduct reconnaissance when necessary for military purposes. Personal rights may not be violated.”

No overlaps with civilian aviation

Zmug said that the Tracker drones could theoretically be used to monitor large-scale events, for example as part of the EVIVA program in which the Austrian Armed Forces were involved. But this is not likely, he said. “We can only use drones for such purposes when we are asked to do so, for example by the Ministry of the Interior.”

According to Zmug, the Tracker drones are normally only used in restricted airspaces within Austria, for example above troop training grounds. The areas of operation have been clearly separated from the civilian airspace in coordination with the Austrian air traffic control authority Austro Control.

“Valuable contribution”

Zmug said that the Tracker drones and specially trained operators allow Austria to make a valuable contribution in foreign operations, even as a small country. He provided one example of how important technical aids from Austria can be: “In Bosnia, the Austrian Armed Forces provide Alouette helicopters for medical purposes, including for civilian missions. This has earned us a great deal of respect from the general population. Drones could also help with foreign missions. But this requires an order from the federal government in each case.”