Can One Single Service Control All Military Drones?

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A decade ago, as the U.S. military scrambled to gear up for unexpectedly lengthy wars, the Air Force declared that it should oversee all Pentagon drones that flew higher than 3,500 feet. Its argument was simple: these new weapons were being developed and purchased in tremendous quantity and significant diversity. Without a single controlling agency, the thinking went, the various services’ drones might waste money, fight poorly together, or even blunder into the path of another service’s manned aircraft.

The Air Force lost that battle when Army and Navy leaders teamed up to block what they saw as an epic power grab, and today’s leaders say they have no desire to refight it. But with the U.S. military once again preparing to drastically expand its drone presence, some say it’s time to think about putting high-flying UAVs under one organizational roof.

“There needs to be someone with oversight that is actually pulling together and assuring the interdependency of the systems that each of the individual services are developing,” said David Deptula, a retired lieutenant general who oversaw the Air Force’s drone and intelligence operations and pushed for a single-service executive agent. “That would go a long way to solving many of the challenges that exist in terms of providing sufficient capability to meet the demand that’s out there for UAVs.”

Air Force leaders say they have no interest in revisiting that battle.

“I don’t think the debate would be helpful or particularly useful right now,” Gen. Mark Welsh, the Air Force chief of staff, said at a Pentagon press briefing Monday. “The debate was contentious when we had it…It was divisive and it was not helpful in my view.”

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Aerial resupply lands on ground troops


NATICK, Mass. (March 10, 2015) — The U.S. Army is streamlining efforts to provide squad- and platoon-level ground Soldiers, operating in austere environments, with an organic aerial resupply capability that will empower and sustain them on the battlefield.

The Enhanced Speed Bag System, or ESBS, fills this capability gap by drastically increasing the survivability rate of critical resupply items such as water, ammunition, rations and medical supplies, which must be air-dropped from helicopters to small units on the ground. The system includes a hands-free linear brake, rope, and a padded cargo bag that can hold up to 200 pounds and be dropped from 100 feet.

ESBS was originally developed by engineers, from the Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC’s, Aerial Delivery Directorate and the Armament Research, Development and Engineering Center, or ARDEC’s, Logistics Research and Engineering Directorate to standardize the improvised airdrop methods used in theater to resupply units in remote locations, where traditional resupply methods, such as truck convoys, are too impractical or threat laden.

“The goal was to standardize ad hoc techniques used with body bags and duffel bags by providing a material solution and giving units enough knowledge and training to utilize it,” said Dale Tabor, NSRDEC’s aerial delivery design and fabrication team leader.

“We originally received this need from the field, specifically for emergency ammunition resupply,” said Bob Forrester, an engineer with ARDEC’s Logistics Research and Engineering Directorate at Picatinny Arsenal, New Jersey. “We received the requirements, found the funding, and teamed with Natick as the technical lead.

“Essentially, we worked the ammunition survivability piece, and NSRDEC worked the aerial delivery piece,” Forrester said.

At an evaluation conducted in July 2013 on Fort A.P. Hill, Virginia, teams packed six ESBS cargo bags with 12,720 rounds of ammunition, each distributed based on a squad-level basic load, and dropped from a 100-foot crane. They thoroughly inspected the rounds and conducted a live fire to determine the ammunition system’s effectiveness.

The results were a 98-percent survivability rating of ammunition dropped with the ESBS – a vast improvement from the 50-60 percent experienced with ad hoc methods.

Subsequent evaluation at Army Expeditionary Warfighting Experiment Spiral I 2014 prompted ARDEC to “recommend the immediate fielding of ESBS to deployed Soldiers,” Forrester said.

“What we have done is taken resupply to the lowest possible level – the squad and platoon levels,” Tabor said.

“Soldiers at unit level are trained how to get the system packaged, loaded in the aircraft, and delivered,” Tabor said. “In this way, ESBS provides an organic resupply capability.”

Advancement of the system gained increased momentum through the involvement of the U.S. Army’s Rapid Equipping Force, or REF, an organization uniquely chartered to combine requirement validation, acquisition authority and flexible funding under one roof.

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GoPro Developing Line of Consumer Drones

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GoPro Inc. is developing its own line of consumer drones to expand from its core business of making wearable video cameras popular with surfers and other sports enthusiasts, according to people familiar with its plans.

The company intends to start selling multirotor helicopters equipped with high-definition cameras late next year, aiming for a price tag between $500 and $1,000, these people said.

The entry of a big consumer-electronics brand to the drone market signals how mainstream—and lucrative—the industry has become in just a few years.

Consumers have flocked to unmanned aircraft in recent years as technological advances have made them smaller, cheaper and easier to fly, leaving regulators scrambling to keep up.

Consumer drones are typically lightweight helicopters with cameras that can be controlled with a tablet computer or smartphone. U.S. regulators allow their use by hobbyists. The devices are expected to be hot sellers this holiday season and have even inspired their own version of the selfie, or self-portrait photo, called a “dronie.”

GoPro’s move into drones comes as its market-leading camcorder business faces competition from rivals such as Sony Corp. The 10-year old company, which went public in June, has been investing heavily in research and development to maintain its lead in the camera business, which shipped nearly 2.8 million units in the first nine months of the year, up 15% from the same period last year.

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University of Maryland receives COA for Talon 240 UAV flight


The US Federal Aviation Administration has issued a Certificate of Waiver or Authorization (COA) to the University of Maryland unmanned air vehicle test site to carry out flight testing using the UAV Solutions Talon 240.

Flying should begin in December and will see the fixed-wing electric vehicle fly from the Crisfield Municipal airport in Maryland.

“Use of the Talon 240 to demonstrate safe and responsible integration of unmanned aircraft systems into the airways will contribute to the advancement of the use of this technology in the national airspace system,” UAV Solutions chief executive Bill Davidson said in a statement.

The university said the CAO was the result of the first use of its airworthiness process, which is modelled after the US Navy’s standards for safety and reliability of UAVs.

The university has close connections with the US Naval Air Systems Command, and the Talon was designed for use by militaries and universities that need a platform to conduct operations and research.

The 61kg Talon 240 has an endurance of between 2.5 and 3.5 hours and a payload capacity of 5.5kg, with nose- and belly-mount payload positions.

The carbonfibre and Kevlar design has a 20ft wingspan and a modular battery compartment, and it can take off via a pneumatic launcher or from the back of a pick-up truck and then belly-landed.

The university is also part of the Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP) – a group of six universities charged by the US Congress with carrying out a programme to integrate unmanned aircraft into US airspace.

Under this programme, the FAA granted the site two-year COAs for seven UAVs. In addition to the Talon, they include the Smart Road Flyer, eSPAARO, Aeryon Sky Ranger, Mantra2, Sig Rascal and two Avid EDF-8 micro UAVs.

Army Reachers Develop Pocket- Sized Aerial Surveillance Device



NATICK, Mass. (Nov. 19, 2014) — Researchers at the U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center are developing technologies for a pocket-sized aerial surveillance device for Soldiers and small units operating in challenging ground environments.

The Cargo Pocket Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance program, or CP-ISR, seeks to develop a mobile Soldier sensor to increase the situational awareness of dismounted Soldiers by providing real-time video surveillance of threat areas within an immediate operational environment.

While larger systems have been used to provide over-the-hill ISR capabilities on the battlefield for almost a decade, none deliver it directly to the squad level, where Soldiers need the ability to see around the corner or into the next room during combat missions.

When Soldiers and small units need to assess the threat in a village, or in thick canopy terrain where traditional ISR assets cannot penetrate, the CP-ISR can be deployed to provide that capability.

“The Cargo Pocket ISR is a true example of an applied systems approach for developing new Soldier capabilities,” said Dr. Laurel Allender, acting technical director, U.S. Army Natick Soldier Research, Development and Engineering Center, or NSRDEC. “It provides an integrated capability for the Soldier and small unit for increased situational awareness and understanding with negligible impact on Soldier load and agility.”

NSRDEC engineers investigated existing commercial off-the-shelf technologies to identify a surrogate CP-ISR system.

Prox Dynamics’ PD-100 Black Hornet, a palm-sized miniature helicopter weighing only 16 grams, has the ability to fly up to 20 minutes while providing real-time video via a digital data link from one of the three embedded cameras and operates remotely with GPS navigation. Tiny, electric propellers and motors make the device virtually undetectable to subjects under surveillance.

The size, weight and image-gathering capabilities of the system are promising advancements that fulfill the burgeoning requirement for an organic, squad-level ISR capability, but more work still needs to be done.

Several efforts are underway to develop three different aspects of the technology to ensure it is ready for the Soldier and small unit.

The first of these efforts is focused on a redesign of the digital data link to achieve compatibility with U.S. Army standards.

The second focuses on developing and integrating advanced payloads for low-light imaging, allowing for indoor and night operations.

Lastly, researchers are continuing to develop and enhance guidance, navigation and control, or GNC, algorithms for the CP-ISR surrogate system. This will allow the airborne sensor to operate in confined and indoor spaces, such as when Soldiers advance from room to room as they are clearing buildings.

In November 2014, NSRDEC will collaborate with the Maneuver Center of Excellence, the Army Research Laboratory and other organizations to support the Army Capabilities Integration Center’s Manned Unmanned Teaming (Ground) Limited Objective Experiment, by demonstrating the current capabilities of mobile Soldier sensors.

While the final system could be different from the surrogate system, NSRDEC officials said they are focused on proving the basic capability first.


FAA Can Make All Drone Flights Illegal

Some very bad news for drone pilots this morning: An appeals board has ruled that the Federal Aviation Administration has wide latitude to make all drone flights illegal in the United States.

​The decision, by the National Transportation Safety Board, determined that the FAA’s existing “aircraft” regulations can apply to model aircraft, drones, and remote controlled aircraft, which is perhaps the most restrictive possible outcome for drone pilots in a legal saga that has dragged on for more than a year.

The case, ​which we have covered extensively, concerns Raphael “Trappy” Pirker, a Swiss pilot who was fined $10,000 by the FAA for a “reckless flight” at the University of Virginia in 2011. There was nothing overly interesting about Pirker’s flight, other than the fact that he was paid for his work—something that the FAA has been trying to say is illegal for quite some time now. Pirker originally won his court case, in which a federal judge ruled that model aircraft aren’t technically “aircraft” subject to the FAA’s existing regulations.


Pirker’s original flight​.

The appeals board disagreed, saying that the federal “definitions on their face do not exclude even a ‘model aircraft’ from the meaning of ‘aircraft.’”

“Furthermore, the definitions draw no distinction between whether a device is manned or unmanned,” the board wrote. ” ​An aircraft is ‘any’ ‘device’ that is ‘used for flight.’ We acknowledge the definitions are as broad as they are clear, but they are clear nonetheless.”

The decision is close to what the FAA originally pushed for, ​which is so broad that perhaps frisbees and baseballs could be considered “aircraft.”

And that’s the devastating part of this decision for drone enthusiasts: The FAA’s existing aircraft regulations cannot be reconciled with its guidelines for model aircraft flights. ​ The statute that the FAA used to fine Pirker suggests that any flight by an “aircraft” below 500 feet can be considered reckless. The FAA’s model aircraft guidelines, meanwhile, suggest that any flight over 400 feet by a drone is unsafe and potentially illegal.

” With this decision, the NTSB has declared model aircraft, paper airplanes and even children’s toys to be ‘aircraft,’ subject to the same regulations as 747s, which ignores entirely the fact that for decades none has ever been treated as such,” Peter Sachs, a Connecticut-based lawyer and founder of the Drone Pilots Association told me. “I don’t think that’s what Congress ever intended or that common sense and logic support today’s NTSB’s decision.”

Brendan Schulman, Pirker’s lawyer, told me that the court failed to address “whether the safe operation of drones for business purposes is prohibited by any law” and said that he is “reviewing options for our next steps in the Pirker case.”

In this particular instance, the case was sent back down to a lower court for more evidence gathering and a discussion of whether Pirker’s flight was actually “reckless.” But, considering the FAA’s definition that any flight under 500 feet by an aircraft is reckless, that seems like a mere formality.

“While we disagree with the decision, today’s NTSB ruling in the Pirker case is narrowly limited to whether unmanned aircraft systems are subject to an aviation safety regulation concerning reckless operation,” Schulman said, which is “an issue that the NTSB has said requires further factual investigation before a penalty is imposed.”

So, for the time being, any drone flight by anyone in the country can be considered “reckless” by the FAA under the NTSB’s latest ruling, meaning that the FAA can fine you $10,000 for flying one anywhere, for any purpose. And the fact that “any device that is used for flight” can be considered an aircraft seems to suggest that even tiny toy aircraft are subject to the FAA’s whim.

Whether that’s likely is another question altogether, but it’s sure to have a chilling effect on the industry until the FAA releases clear drone regulations—something that it says it will do before the end of the year. It has missed multiple deadlines for that, so I wouldn’t hold your breath. The state of drone regulations were already a mess—things just got a bit messier.

NTSB Ruling

Safety Fears Over Amazon’s Parcel-Delivery Testing In Cambridge



Amazon’s plans to deliver parcels by drone and run flight tests in Cambridge have been called “barking mad”.

Safety fears have been raised about having unmanned aircraft flying above the city and dropping off goods to homes – with the drones likely to be a tempting target for yobs with airguns.

But the world’s largest online retailer is serious about the plan and is expanding its research and development team in Cambridge to make the vision a reality.

Terry Holloway, managing director of Cambridge Aero Club, which is based at the city’s airport, said he had to check his calendar to check it wasn’t April 1..

He said: “It makes no sense to me, a barking mad idea. From a legislative point of view the Civil Aviation Authority rules as they currently exist means it’s just totally unfeasible to even consider doing this.

“Maybe the CAA will relax the rules, but then that begs all sorts of questions from the everyday man on the street. I have real concerns about how they will deliver parcels safely and then you might have yobs who will see them as targets and throw turnips at them and whatever else.”

He added: “What strikes me is you can post a letter or a parcel and within 12 hours it can be delivered to other end of the country. It’s a fantastic system that is fast, cheap and safe. Why would you want to do this instead?”

Amazon bought Cambridge start-up Evi Technologies, which is based in Castle Park, off Castle Hill, two years ago. The firm would not reveal if aerial tests would be performed in Cambridge or any more details on the programme.

But Amazon said it has been looking to bolster its teams at development centres in Cambridge and Seattle in the USA for Prime Air, the name it has given to its drone programme.

Listed on its website are jobs in Cambridge for roles including flight operations engineer. Part of the job description reads: “You can expect to collaborate on test plans, plan the test evolution, and execute the flights while working closely with our flight engineering and flight test teams in Seattle.”

A spokesman for Amazon Prime Air said: “We have multiple Prime Air development centers, including R&D labs in Seattle and Cambridge. We’re always looking to add great talent to the team. The Cambridge-based Prime Air positions we have open are a reflection of that.”

The rules covering flying small unmanned aircraft are governed by Articles 166-167 of the CAA’s 2009 regulations.

They bar bar small unmanned aircraft from flying beyond the normal unaided line of sight of the person operated and, if fitted with a camera, must not be flown within 150m of a congested area.

Camera-fitted drones must always be flown at least 50m away from a person, vehicle, building or structure.

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Need Eyes in the Sky? This ‘Uber for Drones’ Will Send You a Pilot


Christian Sanz calls it “Uber for drone pilots.”

The founder of the San Francisco drone startup SkyCatch wants to bring the “sharing economy” ethos to drones, offering a new service called Workmode, which helps companies find and hire unmanned aerial vehicles for mapping jobs, surveying, and other work.

Aerial drones make it far easier and faster to make good maps, as they provide a view of the landscape below. What once took days of surveying can be done in hours. That’s a boon to construction companies and mining operations that need maps of quickly changing terrain, but not every company can spend $10,000 on a drone for a one-off project—and even fewer have qualified drone pilots on staff.

That’s why SkyCatch is launching Workmode, which helps companies find third-party drone pilots—much like Uber lets you hire a car ride or AirBnb lets you rent a room. The goal is to make it easier for companies to afford the expensive technology of unmanned aerial vehicles and, in the process, help independent pilots make money from their drones. But it’ll need some help from regulators.

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