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PLANES WITHOUT BORDERS: Survey, Search, Rescue & Recon

PLANES WITHOUT BORDERS: Survey, Search, Rescue & Recon

Australia is a massive country with one of the longest coastlines in the world. It’s a remote, harsh continent that faces many threats, and poses plenty of challenges. Aviator takes a look at Australia’s current reconnaissance aviation task force and considers alternative aircraft that might soon be saving lives or safe-guarding our environment.

The length and breadth of this wide, brown land needs to be continually monitored, mapped, surveyed and protected. And while checking out this seemingly endless landmass is enough of a job, securing Australia’s maritime environment is also a mammoth task, with responsibility for almost 35,000km of coastline and 14 per cent of the world’s oceans.

Given the vast amount of space that needs to be protected from natural threats such as bushfires, or man-made ones including people smuggling, as well as the need for near-constant search and rescue operations, the solutions are as complex as they are awe-inspiring.

It takes special types of aircraft to carry out these long endurance missions, from custom-built search and rescue planes to drones and gyrocopters, and the Government is always on the lookout for better solutions to growing problems.

We’ll take a look at what’s being done to watch over Australia from the air, and check out some of the exciting developments that will help keep this country safe for years to come. Don’t worry, you and your country are in good hands.



For the past decade, AeroRescue have provided dedicated long range, fixed wing aircraft for use by the Australian Maritime Safety Authority (AMSA). They operate five Dornier 328 turboprops and a single Beechcraft 200T Super King Air, based primarily out of Brisbane and Darwin as well as Perth, Melbourne and Cairns.

The German-designed 328s are heavily modified to provide a sensor and drop platform suitable for a broad range of missions, and have the range and cruise speed required to tackle a country the size of Australia.

There are four established bases with trained aircrew, a SAR equipment store, engineering support, training cells, and the large array of business equipment required for a modern aviation establishment.

AeroRescue maintains a strict response time – crew are in the aircraft and taxiing within 30 minutes by day and 60 minutes by night after the receipt of an activation phone call from the Rescue Coordination Centre in Canberra.

In 2014, it was announced that Cobham SAR Services had won a 12-year, $640 million contract to supply and operate search and rescue aircraft for the AMSA. The new deal will see Cobham taking over from AeroRescue. They’ll operate four Bombardier Challenger 604 special missions jets modified for search and rescue operations, to be based at three locations around Australia – Perth, Melbourne and Cairns. One aircraft will be based at each location, with a fourth serving as an operational spare.

 “The future capability will use faster and longer-range aircraft to provide a similar level of capability to our current service, but using fewer aircraft,” AMSA chief executive officer Mick Kinley observed.

The new aircraft will be fitted with a range of sensors including a search radar, FLIR, beacon and direction finders, plus satellite communications and a mission management system. In addition they will feature high-vision windows and air-operable doors for aerial delivery of equipment such as life-rafts, satellite phones, food and water.

Similarly-configured CL-604 Multi-Mission Aircraft are in service with the Royal Danish Air Force, used for maritime surveillance and rescues. These aircraft were modified by Canada’s Field Aviation, which has partnered with Cobham in the past on Cobham’s Coastwatch Dash 8 aircraft.

The aircraft will be operated by a crew of five – captain, first officer, visual search officer, electronic search observer and aircraft mission coordinator. Aircraft and crews will be on permanent standby to deploy on search and rescue missions 24 hours a day.

The bespoke Mission Management and Communications System includes latest-generation electronic sensor technology and broadband satellite communications with real-time sharing of streamed video, audio and imagery between the aircraft and AMSA’s Rescue Coordination Centre, based in Canberra, Australia.



Just because our TV screens balloon under the weight of cop shop shows and RBT extravaganzas, it doesn’t mean that the boys from AMSA are twiddling their thumbs in a backroom somewhere. As well as instructing their own aviation fleet, AMSA also provide central co-ordination efforts for specific incidents and state SES services, often tasking local aircraft and helicopters to participate in search operations. With such a huge area to patrol, it’s certainly non-stop action for our aviation search and rescue squads as is amply witnessed by the following small selection of major incidents from last year:


Medical evacuation - HMB Bark Endeavour, east of Jervis Bay, 31 January 2015
AMSA coordinated the medical evacuation of a 50-year-old female passenger from the HMB Endeavour approximately 63 kilometres east of Jervis Bay, New South Wales.Rescue helicopter Lifesaver 3 from Moruya was tasked and successfully conducted the medical evacuation just before last light in poor weather conditions. The evacuation was difficult as the patient had to be lowered into the rescue boat and towed behind the HMB Endeavour to facilitate a safe hoist by helicopter.

The master of the HMB Endeavour subsequently rang AMSA to thank the rescue operators for their efforts and highlighted the difficult conditions in which the medevac was undertaken. 


Defective rudder - Yacht Hydra, north-west of Nhulunbuy, 12 March 2015
  AMSA coordinated the search and rescue for yacht Hydra approximately 216 kilometres north-west of Nhulunbuy, Northern Territory. The 12-metre yacht with one person on board issued a HF radio urgency (PAN PAN) broadcast requesting assistance following the loss of its rudder (and therefore unable to make its way).AMSA’s HF DSC radio station commenced radio schedules with the yacht and tasked the Cairns Dornier aircraft Rescue 431 to drop a satellite phone, distress beacon and drogue to assist in communicating with the yacht and to reduce the rate of drift. The Northern Territory Water Police confirmed that the commercial vessel Take Off, from Nhulunbuy, was en route to offer towage assistance. Hydra was subsequently assisted to Nhulunbuy where it safely berthed on 17 March.

Vessel fire - Shofuku Maru No.78, north-west of Dampier, 14 March 2015
A Japanese registered distress beacon was detected approximately 657 kilometres north-west of Dampier, Western Australia. The Japanese Coast Guard identified the vessel as the Shofuku Maru No.78 with 24 people on board. An urgency broadcast was issued by AMSA and the Australian Defence Force was requested to provide a search aircraft.The chemical tanker Axios responded to the broadcast and an airborne charter aircraft was diverted to the scene. The aircraft located the Shofuku Maru No. 78 on fire and reported that the crew had abandoned the vessel into a life raft. The broadcast was upgraded to distress and three additional merchant vessels were diverted, in addition to AMSA’s Perth-based Dornier aircraft Rescue 461, a Royal Australian Air Force AP3C Orion long range maritime patrol aircraft and an airborne Virgin Airlines Boeing 737.

All 24 crew were recovered and no injuries reported. The Axios diverted to Port Hedland to land the survivors, who were transferred to shore by the support vessel Necede. 

Yacht grounding - Vector, Miles Island, WA, 3 May 2015
AMSA received a distress beacon detection registered to yacht Vector in the vicinity of Miles Island, Western Australian on 3 May 2015.Enquiries revealed that one person was on board and the yacht was disabled and drifting in poor weather. AMSA tasked its Perth-based Dornier aircraft Rescue 481 and a Bell 206 helicopter from Esperance to the scene.

The yacht subsequently ran aground on a large rock to the north of Miles Island. Rescue 481 arrived on scene and remained overhead while the Bell 206 was able to land on the rocks and rescue the yachtsman. The yachtsman was taken to Esperance and no further assistance was required.



In 2011 BAE Systems Australia, one of the largest defence contractors in the country, ordered their first Tecnam MMA. It’s since become an integral part of the defence and surveillance of our coasts.

The MMA (Multi Mission Aircraft) is a modified version of the Tecnam P2006T Twin. To transform the P2006T into a special mission aircraft, Austria’s Airborne Technologies added a number of modifications including additional electrical power (a separate 28V/70Amps electrical mission supply), a retractable sensor system and an integrated pilot flight guidance system/sensor operator workstation.

Meanwhile, fellow Austrians Diamond Aircraft moved into the world of surveillance aircraft when they modified their obscenely popular DA42 to carry aerial sensing, mapping and surveillance payloads. Known as the MPP, or Multi-Purpose Platform, it’s proven to be more successful than anyone could have imagined, with government agencies from around the world favouring it.

“The MPPs are now 40 percent of our production and 70 percent of our turnover,” claims Christian Dries, chairman of Diamond. He believes that flexibility and low cost of operation are major factors in the aircraft’s success. Popular uses for the aircraft include environmental monitoring, law enforcement, border and maritime patrol, and HDTV broadcasting.

Most of the customers for the MPP have been government agencies. The two-to-four-seat MPP is powered by Diamond’s own AE300 turbocharged engines, which run on jet-A1 fuel, and burn less than 20 litres each per hour, allowing the craft to remain airborne for ages. The engines cannot be heard when the aircraft is flying above 1,000 feet in ambient noise conditions, or 8,000 feet over a desert at night. Typical missions last six to eight hours, although 12 hours is possible.

Customers can specify the sensors they require, which are installed and certified at the factory. Payloads can include electro-optical/infrared turrets, laser scanners and small radars. They are added to the nose or a large belly pod.

Israeli company Aeronautics has also developed an unmanned version of the DA42 MPP, meaning this versatile aircraft just got even better.



The Dornier 328 has long been the Granddaddy of search and rescue operations here and abroad. This mighty flier has exceptional capability and is kitted out to the gunnels with state of the art technology and fits neatly into S&R ops all around the world. However, the health of this aviation icon is monitored and serviced from a high tech facility at the heart of Germany.

328 Support services GmbH (328), as the Dornier 328 Type certificate holder offers unique maintenance and technical services to global operators, including all-level maintenance: from heavy repair, engine support, retrofit programs, to support on avionics and electrical systems. The 328 HQ is based in Oberpfaffenhofen, a few kilometres from Munich.

328 Global Support team ensures optimum availability to minimise any aircraft downtime all day in most time zones. The Aircraft on ground (AOG) service is offered for technical and spares situations. A large inventory of spares allows quick turnaround times and ensures speedy spare parts delivery regardless of the part needed. A spares and ground equipment rental program and a spares exchange program help lower in-service costs.

Having this worldwide cover, as well as this wide range of services, allows a rapid response and the possibility to action more efficiently and quickly regardless of the nature and location of the enquiry.

In addition, as an EASA approved design and airworthiness organisations (level 1), 328 also offers development and certification services ranging to third party organisations on a work/share basis allowing third parties to utilise in house resources. That said, 328 also provides full training and familiarisation of new integrated systems related to the Dornier 328 series aircraft to companies that wish to fly the aircraft.

It is crucial for 328 to be present worldwide – the Do328 is currently certified in 85 countries around the world. Renowned for its ultimate versatility, the aircraft is used for different roles and missions ranging from basic regional operation up to VIP or special missions such as Air ambulance or Maritime Patrol Aircraft (MPA) and coast guard surveillance. Formerly being operated by AMSA (Australian Maritime Safety Association) in Australia, the aircraft is appreciated for providing a longer range capacity compared to other types of transport such as smaller aircraft or helicopters. They are able to rapidly respond and deliver support quickly. During marine and aeronautical incidents, the 328 proves its utility with higher efficiency as helicopters have limited range and speed.

With the upcoming launch of the modernised versions of the 328 including a new cockpit suite & avionics, the TRJ328 is set to become one of the most advanced aircraft within the regional market, ready to serve all needs and markets from regional operations to specific missions. The TRJ328 is anticipated to do its maiden flight by 2019 with a first delivery of the new aircraft by 2020.



Of course, no discussion about Australia’s reconnaissance aircraft can now occur without some mention of the protracted search for the missing Malaysian Flight MH90. Undertaken and funded by the Australian Government, this massive operation has thrown the issue of cost-effectiveness into stark relief recently. Millions of dollars were spent on the mission and, the knock-on effect, was various government departments reviewing their aviation surveillance and search and rescue budgets and how the expensive, high tech aircraft operated by the RAAF are utilized and deployed.

Changes have been made, budgets reviewed and questions asked. This has naturally thrown up significant opportunities for more cost effective ‘special missions’ airborne platforms to patrol Australia’s expansive coastline. Local state-led reconnaissance and patrol fleets might benefit from considering cheaper, smaller scale aircraft and looking at how overseas emergency aviation services equip themselves.

One such alternative might be the Tecnam platform, already in operation in a multi-mission profile, as previously mentioned, with BAE Systems. Their recently configured ‘MRI’ fit-out, already optioned and on patrol in Spain and having been deployed in several Frontex Operations, is specifically geared towards maritime operations. The ground-breaking P2006T MRI (Multi-Sensor Reconnaissance and Identification) twin-engine is a unique machine developed in conjunction with Spanish technology security and defence solution company, INDRA. This aircraft has been specifically developed to patrol those maritime zones currently kept under surveillance by coastguards currently operating medium-size helicopters and large maritime patrol aircraft. The Tecnam MRI affords significant opportunities for more efficient and effective maritime security and costal patrol missions.

In what seems an ideal package for Australian-specific federal and state concerns, the P2006T fits the bill to fulfill many other specialist tasks including, maritime safety, search and rescue, fisheries protection, oil field protection, marine environmental protection, drugs interdiction, illegal immigration interdiction and other law enforcement missions.

The technology suite includes a Seaspray 5000E Active Electronically Scanned Array (AESA) multi- mode surveillance radar from SELEX Galileo that can use several modes simultaneously. Electro-optical and infrared sensors (Ultra Force 275) are supplied by FLIR Systems. Other equipment includes an AIS (Automatic Identification System) transponder for identifying ships, which is integrated with the radar picture. All information that is gathered is recorded and transferred in real time to a ground station via a datalink or a satellite option.

As the P2006T is powered by two four cylinder Rotax 912S3 engines delivering 100 hp each it can provide an enviable six hours of flying time with a cruise speed of 130 knots loaded with 200 litres of fuel. Fully retractable landing gear also allows for an uninterrupted view for the sensors.

For broader applications, Tecnam have made available an SMP (Special Mission Platform) solution across some of their range – the ULM/LSA P92 Eaglet, the P92JS and the afore-mentioned twin engine P2006T are all part of this family.

The available configurations in the Tecnam SMP programme are all aimed at a “vertical package” so that the end-user has a single contact for the whole system: aircraft, payload integration and everything related with it. And, most significantly, every single bespoke item is integrated within the airframe with flexibility and continuous possibility to upgrade the system as new technologies become available.

Seeing a few Tecnam SMPs patrolling Australia’s beaches and surveying our vast inland spaces would certainly be lighter on the wallet for the taxpayer.



Another foreign contender could be the more heavyweight Embraer ERJ 145 which has proven to be the perfect base for a series of military variations that have changed the way countries protect their borders.

While not currently in service in Australia, the three versions of this craft are nonetheless fascinating examples of surveillance aircraft and well worth looking at.

The R-99A is an early warning and control aircraft, equipped with the Erieye active electronically scanned array radar from Saab Microwave Systems. It has 95 per cent of the capability of the full-sized aircraft which are in service in the air forces of other nations.

The R-99B is a remote sensing aircraft. It employs a synthetic aperture radar, combination electro-optical and FLIR systems as well as a multi-spectral scanner. The aircraft also possesses signal intelligence and C3I capabilities.

The EMB 145 MP is the maritime patrol version of the R-99. It shares much of the same sensor suite as the R-99B, but most visibly, lacks the multi-spectral scanner and the side-looking radar. It retains many of the C3I and ELINT capabilities of the R-99B. Mexico was the launch customer for this variant.

The aircraft are capable of receiving and transmitting data through their embedded, state-of-the-art wide band on-board data-link systems. Sensor images, including target data, are readily received from or relayed to command and control stations on the ground or in the air or to other aircraft in the operational theatre.

These beauties are the perfect combination of modern equipment, advanced technology and low downtime, together with a high degree of readiness — the direct result of a platform intended for the competitive regional market.



Other countries with far smaller budgets than ours, have also made use of lighter aircraft that are carving themselves an invaluable niche in beach and forest surveillance missions. Slow and steady is the order of the day for these particular missions and the less pilot training the better, for what are essentially ‘spotter’ ops. For instance, the forests of Indonesia are abuzz with flocks of cheap to run auto-gyros which provide a convenient aerial platform for surveying the large swathes of, sadly endangered, rainforests. Illegal logging activities and other enforcement activities are initially identified by local police aviators buzzing aloft in ultralights.

The enterprising South Africans have come up with a budget-busting (in a good way) ultralight that is currently surveying the African savannah. With a similar climate to ours, the Bat Hawk is now a proven ‘bush plane’ and quite possibly the cheapest LSA on the market. With an all up weight of only 540 kg and a large 80 litre fuel tank capacity, this little beauty is super responsive, remaining perfectly balanced for fingertip control and hands off flight. Great for learners but pushed to the maximum by an experienced pilot the manoeuverability is remarkable. You don’t have to be Einstein to realise that this lean machine would be perfect for many Aussie-centric tasks: regular ranger patrols, fence checking and stock mustering, aerial topdressing and spraying, aerial photography and surveying and water point monitoring.

The list is endless and, who knows, you might even see local council planners performing fly-bys. Those unapproved rural earthworks not spotted by eagle-eyed, Google satellite studying planning officers might just fall prey to closer inspection from an ultralight.



However, the future of reconnaissance and surveillance aviation may lie with drones. In 2014 plans were announced to spend $3 billion on seven unmanned aircraft with wingspans comparable to those of 737s.

Although the unmanned aircraft would be primarily purchased for military reasons, to spot enemy ships and planes in a conflict, their ability to patrol as much as 40,000 square nautical miles in a single mission means they would also be used to detect illegal fishermen and asylum-seekers, patrol offshore oil and gas assets and provide early warnings for bushfires.

“As a maritime nation, a capability with this type of coverage must have our attention,” then-Defence Minister David Johnston said at the time. “Accordingly, this government is interested in exploring cost-effective ways of re-engaging with this particular program and possibly bringing it back on board.”

Drones are increasingly becoming integral pieces of surveillance equipment. Cheap to produce and fly, while not requiring a crew, they’re perfectly placed to replace missions once reserved for full-scale aircraft.

Their appeal to forestry and National Parks commissions across Australia are obvious – with the monumental size of Australia and our protected areas, it was simply not possible in the past to fully map them, while search and rescue missions were also difficult. However, that’s changing thanks to the introduction of the little wonders.

In contrast, while Australia has been slow to fully embrace the use of drones in our National Parks, we hear that there have been many proposals, and it’s only a matter of time before they become a major part of surveillance and conservation.

One proposal comes from Lian Pin Koh, one half of the team behind Conservation Drones, who have a unique and low cost approach to animal and forestry monitoring. Koh and his team perfected their plan in Sumatra several years ago, and came up with their first prototype for less than $2000.

“Nobody is supposed to be in the national parks, so they use the drones to simply look out for people,” said Lian. “We recently started a project in India, in a park called the Panna Tiger Reserve. They have 20 or so tigers there, and we track them to follow how well they are doing.” Now Lian wants to bring his prototype to Australia.

“I’m establishing my group and sorting out the paperwork and regulations that are required to fly one of these things in Australia,” he said. “The Civil Aviation Safety Authority requires permission and certification for flying. This is a good thing,” he said.

While the good folks at the National Parks are still deciding which route they will go regarding drones, trials are underway to see how the tiny aircraft can aid farming. Many Australian farms are vast and difficult to monitor efficiently, but it looks like a solution is on the way.

Australian company Ninox Robotics hopes to provide high-tech surveillance by utilising unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) with advanced real time thermal imaging capabilities to detect invasive pests – such as wild dogs, pigs or rabbits – across rural terrain.

“We can build barrier fences, we can bait, we can shoot, but we lack quality intelligence,” Marcus Ehrlich, managing director of Ninox Robotics said. “With the application of UAVs, we have a new weapon in this fight.”

Trials have involved the SpyLight System detecting invasive pests from the air, providing information on their whereabouts in real-time to a pest management officer. Drones were recently used to undertake a mock rescue of a missing person lost in the scrub, searching for small brush fires from over 5km away, and cataloguing a mob of sheep.

“Australia is enormous. We need to be able to cover ground quickly, rapidly and easily. We need to be able to see things we otherwise wouldn’t be able to see… and we need to be able to fly high so we can cover as much ground as possible,” says Ehrlrich.



Perhaps more than any other nation, Australia presents a daunting challenge with bio-security, border vulnerability and those enormous wide-open spaces all requiring protection, monitoring and mapping. It’s an ongoing battle that aviation is uniquely positioned to address.


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