CASCADE (Complex Autonomous aircraft Systems Configuration, Analysis and Design Exploratory)

Lead Research Organisation: University of Southampton
Department Name: Faculty of Engineering & the Environment


CASCADE will be a keystone in the current aerial robotics revolution. This programme will reach across a wide range of applications from fundamental earth science through to industry applications in construction, security, transport and information.
There is a chasm between consumer level civilian drone operations and high cost military applications. CASCADE will realise a step change in aerial robotics capability and operations. We will be driven by science and industry problems in order to target fundamental research in five key areas; Integration, Safety, Autonomy, Agility, Capability and Scalability as well as overall project methodology.
In targeting these six areas, CASCADE will free up current constraints on UAV operations, providing case study data, exemplars, guidance for regulation purposes and motivating links across the science and engineering divide. The landscape of aerial robotics is changing rapidly and CASCADE will allow the UK to be at the forefront of this revolution. This rapid change is reflected by the wide range of terminology used to describe aerial robots including; Drones, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles, Remotely Piloted Aerial Systems, and Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS). Supporting technologies driving the aerial robotics revolution include improved battery technologies, actuators, sensors, computing and regulations. These have all significantly expanded the possibilities offered by smart, robust, adaptable, affordable, agile and reliable aerial robotic systems.
There are many environmental challenges facing mankind where aerial robots can be of significant value. Scientists currently use resource intensive research ships and aircraft to study the oceans and the atmosphere. CASCADE will focus on reducing these costs and at the same time increasing capability. Some mission types involve prohibitive risks, such as volcano plume sampling and flight in extreme weather conditions. CASCADE will focus on managing these risks for unmanned systems, operating in conditions where it is not possible to operate manned vehicles.
Similarly, there are many potentially useful commercial applications such as parcel delivery, search and rescue, farming, inspection, property maintenance, where aerial robots can offer considerable cost and capability benefits when compared to manned alternatives. CASCADE will focus on bringing autonomous aerial capabilities to a range of industry applications. For both scientific and industry purposes, CASCADE will consider a range of vehicle configurations from standard rotary and fixed wing through to hybrid and multi modal operations. These will bring unique capabilities to challenging operations for which there is no conventional solution.
At present, because of concerns over safety, there are strict regulations concerning where and how aerial robots can be operated. Permissions for use are granted by the UK Civil Aviation Authority and operations are generally not permitted beyond line of sight, close to infrastructure or large groups of people, or more than 400 feet from the ground. These regulations currently restrict many of the potentially useful applications for aerial robots. CASCADE aims to undertake research into key underpinning technologies that will allow these to be extended or removed by working with regulating authorities to help shape the operating environment for future robotic systems.
CASCADE will prove fundamental research through a wide variety of realistic CASE studies. These will be undertaken with academic and industry partners, focussing on demonstrating key technologies and concepts. These test missions will undertake a wide range of exciting applications including very high altitude flights, aerial robots that can also swim, swarms of sensor craft flying into storms, volcanic plumes and urban flights. Through these CASCADE will provide underpinning research, enable and educate users and widely support the aerial robotics revolution.

Planned Impact

The world is on the cusp of a robotics revolution and the CASCADE vision is to ensure that the UK is at the forefront in the use of aerial robotics for scientific and commercial applications. We will do this by radically extending the application and scope of aerial robotics from current highly restricted niche applications into a wide range of new fields. CASCADE will undertake rigorous research into the six underpinning technologies of Integration, Safety, Autonomy, Agility, Capability and Scalability, demonstrating these in a series of very demanding and meticulously documented real-world case studies involving customers who provide a strong technology steer.
CASCADE will have a direct impact on our named external partners, all of whom have already recognised the potential of aerial robotics to significantly enhance, develop and extend their current operations. We will work in close partnership to address both science and industry based problems in order to accelerate the rapid uptake of aerial robotic operations. Cascade members will address fundamental questions and operational issues, ensuring immediate impact of CASCADE in a wide range of applications including inspection, scientific sampling, surveying, communications, transport, security and agriculture. The direct benefit of this work will be to rapidly increase assimilation of these systems, and provide a world leading capability for both science and industry.
The CASCADE consortium consists of five academic institutions, highly experienced in aerial robotic research, design and operations. During the course of the CASCADE programme, there will also be a direct impact across UK academia as a whole, with research, technologies, lessons learned and operational experience shared throughout higher education and through conferences, workshops, journal publications as well as via more modern online communications channels. Aerial robotics has the potential to be a significant enabler and multiplier of effort across academia and society as a whole. CASCADE will significantly increase the ability of academia across the UK to carry out fundamental research and science.
CASCADE also has a unique opportunity to provide extensive and convincing evidence of safe operation that will transform UK policy and regulations. Working together with the UK CAA, CASCADE members, research, documentation and case studies will help to formulate and drive forward aerial robotics regulation, opening the skies to a step change in aerial robotics complexity of design and operation, hand in hand with significant increases in capability. This in turn will support industry efforts, providing a massive stimulus to the nascent UK supply chain and provide scientific and commercial users with a game changing capability.
The use of CASE studies throughout CASCADE will have will have an immediate impact in terms of novel scientific data gained at low cost and in a responsive, high fidelity and flexible manner. These CASE studies will also be widely publicised externally to our partners and UK academia to help inform the UK public with regards to future aerial robotic capability and operation. Public acceptance of routine aerial robot operation will also be key to rapidly realising the significant benefit that they offer the general population as a whole. CASCADE members are fully committed to widespread dissemination and outreach throughout the programme.
Aerospace is an industry in which the UK has traditionally thrived, a high technology field in which many thousands research and work, providing a significant contribution to the national income. The future of the aerospace industry however will not just be in the larger traditional aircraft market, but also in smaller, much higher volume autonomous aerial robotic systems. In the longer term, the on-going impact of CASCADE will be seen in the development and support of indigenous SUAS manufactures and operators.



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