More Sophisticated, Autonomous Unmanned Aircraft on the Horizon



Drones have become one of the most ubiquitous weapons to come out of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. They have given battlefield commanders unprecedented situational awareness and struck key targets all while keeping soldiers out of harm’s way.

In the future, unmanned aerial systems will hold even more utility as they become faster, stealthier and more autonomous, experts said. At the same time, they will become more accessible to foreign countries and terrorist groups around the world.

In a recent Center for a New American Security report titled, “A World of Proliferated Drones: A Technology Primer,” author Kelley Sayler found that foreign nations and non-state actors were quickly developing and adopting the technology.

“We are living, increasingly, in a drone-saturated world,” the report said. “Unmanned aerial vehicles have proliferated rapidly around the globe in both military and civilian spheres.”

More than 90 nations and non-state groups currently operate drones, and many of them can carry weapons, the report said.

“Thirty countries either have or are developing armed drones, including some non-state actors that have either integrated explosives into the drone itself or have claimed … to put releasable bombs or missiles on drones,” said Paul Scharre, a senior fellow at CNAS. “Not all of these countries are major military powers — far from it, in fact.”


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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Here Come the Swarming Drones


Insect inspired aerial vehicles could evolve into useful minions to track, map, and respond to climate change.

Since the dawn of entomology (more or less), scientists have been pondering the question posed so eloquently in “High Hopes,” a song Jimmy Van Heusen and Sammy Cahn wrote for the 1959 movie A Hole in the Head, starring Frank Sinatra:

Just what makes that little old ant think he’ll move that rubber tree plant?

Stephen Pratt, an associate professor at Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences, knows the answer as well as anyone. He runs Pratt Lab, where researchers study how insect societies source food, build nests, and generally get along. The very short answer, he said, is that ants use collective, decentralized intelligence to perform complex tasks. It helps that they also lack an instinct for self-preservation and are focused only on actions that advance the group’s missions.

These characteristics have piqued the interest of robotics engineers such as Vijay Kumar, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and Applied Mechanics. He and the researchers in his General Robotics, Automation, Sensing, and Perception Lab (GRASP) are developing “swarms” of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that work in concert. These devices take hundreds of measurements each second, calculating their position in relation to each other, working cooperatively toward particular missions, and just as important, avoiding each other despite moving quickly and in tight formations. Kumar and his colleagues are using intel from Pratt’s lab, particularly around how ants communicate and cooperate without any central commander, to make swarming UAVs even more autonomous.

India: Drone Ban Hurting Industry Companies


Several companies have had to stop using drones to provide services such as aerial photography after the aviation authority banned the operation of these unmanned vehicles in civilian airspace until regulations are in place.

The decision has set back plans of companies offering a variety of services using drones, including those by online retailer Amazon to deploy them to speed up delivery of products to consumers, according to defence analyst Debajit Sarkar of research firm Market Info Group.

Mumbai-based Airpix, with clients such as Reliance Energy and builders Kalpataru and Omkar Realtors, had to stop offering its flagship aerial photography service since the Directorate General of Civil Aviation issued the circular earlier this month.

“We have reached out to DGCA and we are yet to figure out what to do,” said Shinil Shekhar, the 25-year-old cofounder of Airpix.

Although aerial photography was its core offering, the company said it plans to launch a new product next month that will help contribute to revenue.

The DGCA is in the process of formulating regulations and globally harmonising them for certification and operation for use of unmanned aerial systems in Indian civil airspace, the regulator said in a circular dated October 7.
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Navy’s MQ-8C Fire Scout Prepares for Shipboard Testing


Northrop Grumman Corporation (NYSE:NOC) successfully completed precision sloped landing tests Aug. 27 with the MQ-8C Fire Scout at Naval Base Ventura County, Point Mugu, in preparation for at-sea testing.

MQ-8C Fire Scout has been undergoing rigorous flight testing and validation, which will culminate in the actual takeoff and landing on the deck of a Navy vessel at-sea. The MQ-8C is the company’s latest variant of its successful Fire Scout unmanned aerial system, which performs intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions for the U.S. Navy.


Nick Roy helms Google’s delivery-drone project

Nick Roy

Friends and colleagues were aware, at some level, that Nick Roy, a researcher in MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory (CSAIL), had been using his sabbatical to take on some sort of robotics-related role at Google.

But few people knew the full scope of his work until this past week, when Google X — the infamous idea incubator known for Google Glass, self-driving cars, and wireless hot-air balloons — unveiled a video introducing Project Wing, an ambitious delivery-drone initiative that Roy has overseen for the past two years.

At Google X’s secret Mountain View headquarters, Roy, an associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics, led a team of several dozen autonomy experts to determine the technical feasibility of self-flying delivery vehicles.

Project Wing lined up nicely with Roy’s work as head of CSAIL’s Robust Robotics Group, which focuses in part on sensing, planning, and controlling unmanned vehicles in environments without GPS. He even brought on board a handful of key MIT collaborators, including recent graduates Abraham Bachrach PhD ’13 and Adam Bry SM ’11, whose state-estimation algorithms have drastically improved unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) navigation in indoor spaces.

“The culture at Google X is surprisingly similar to CSAIL,” Roy says. “They’re both forums for ideas, where people are thinking not just about what can be fixed today, but the big questions that, ten or twenty years down the road, we’ll look back at and wonder how they hadn’t been answered yet.”

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Poland’s Flytronic Shows off “Ducted Fans in Wing” VTOL UAS


Polish unmanned air vehicle manufacturer Flytronic is using the MSPO defence show in Kielce to highlight its range, as Poland’s military looks to acquire systems across five weight categories.

Pride of place on its stand is the Manta LE, a hybrid-engined intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance platform that can offer vertical take-off and landing capability, as well as regular flight.

A pair of ducted fans concealed beneath covers in the wings provides vertical lift. The covers open and close automatically as the VTOL mode is engaged or disengaged.

Other comparable systems have tended to use tiltrotor technology to enable the transition to forward flight. However, says Marcin Pczycki, project manager at Flytronic, the company chose the ducted fans to reduce the number of complicated components that present difficulties over reliability.

So far, around 30 flights have been performed using three prototypes, says Pczycki, including VTOL manoeuvres.

Power for both the ducted fans and tail-mounted propellers comes from lithium-ion batteries that are continuously charged in flight by a small petrol-powered engine. The powerplant can even be switched off while airborne to enable a “quiet approach”, says Pczycki. “We are sure enough about ignition that we can switch [the engine] off and then start it again [in flight],” he adds.

Endurance for the Manta LE in its standard mode is around 20h; or 8h with VTOL operation. Maximum take-off weight also reduces from 140kg (308lb) to 70kg in VTOL mode, with empty weight at 50kg. Its wingspan is 6.6m (22ft).


New Israeli Drone Joins Fighting in Gaza

The Israeli Air Force (IAF) has introduced its Elbit systems Hermes-900 unmanned air system (UAS) into service ahead of schedule to support operation “Protective Edge”.


According to the original plan the Hermes-900 was scheduled for operational use in 2015. The IAF is operating the Elbit systems Hermes-450 and Hermes -900 unmanned air systems from the same base and in missions that require the flexibility that these two platforms enable.

The two types have been deployed in the IAF’s Palmachim air base in central Israel and according to the IAF are performing intelligence and forces directing missions around the clock.

The Hermes-900 (Cochav) medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS is is carrying a large variety of sensor derived from Elbit’s key technologies that have been implemented so far on manned aircraft and ground systems.