Malawian students successfully build and test UAS under guidance from Virginia Tech engineers

In November, Virginia Tech and Malawian teams used a fully autonomous UAS to conduct tests at the UNICEF drone testing corridor in Kasungu, Malawi, which opened back in July. Virginia Tech says that “the flights by a fully autonomous aircraft designed in mechanical engineering’s Unmanned Systems Lab set several records in Malawi,” including the longest cross-country UAS flight, the first flight of an aircraft created by Malawians, and the first delivery of a payload from a health clinic. On Nov. 9, the UAS, named EcoSoar, achieved a first-flight milestone when it flew 19 kilometers from the Gogode Health Clinic to the Kasungu Airport. The UAS, which is built to carry small packages for medical supplies and diagnostics, carried a simulated package of medical supplies during the flight. EcoSoar was built by a team of Malawian students from the Malawi University of Science and Technology (MUST). Virginia Tech graduate students Zack Standridge and James Donnelly, along with associate professor in mechanical engineering, Kevin Kochersberger, supervised the Malawian students while they built the aircraft. As a part of a two-day fabrication workshop, 13 students from across the country built five EcoSoar UAS. After a day of flight testing, an EcoSoar UAS was launched to conduct its beyond-line-of-sight (BLOS) delivery flight, in front of hundreds of villagers. The UAS was launched by Donnelly from the Gogode Health Clinic, while Standridge stood by to recover the UAS at the Kasungu Airport. After the flight, Standridge expressed pleasure with how the flight went. “It is extremely rewarding to see my design successfully recreated, and seeing the local students’ excitement in their work only adds to my own enthusiasm for the project,” Standridge says. Made with material such as foamcore poster board and 3-D printed parts, the UAS costs $350. It has a payload capacity of 130 grams (4.5 ounces), and can be fitted with an eight-megapixel camera, which it can use to collect images of the ground environment. Those images can then be reconstructed for environmental monitoring. Kochersberger, who plans to return to Malawi in 2018 with a production-ready version of the EcoSoar UAS that will be adopted by the attendees of the workshop, is optimistic about the future of this technology in Malawi.  “EcoSoar was designed with low-resource environments in mind,” Kochersberger says. “I envision entrepreneurs in Malawi establishing businesses around the use of this aircraft – building, operating, and maintaining EcoSoar for both medical deliveries and environmental assessment activities.” Michael Scheibenreif, drone corridor lead with UNICEF, offered similar sentiments towards the technology, saying, “this could have the potential to deliver medicine to remote and hard to access communities and is a great example of how important it is to build local capacity in the drone sector. If we can build an ecosystem of drone experts locally, we can ensure these solutions are sustainable and embedded within the communities they service.” The corridor will remain open for one to two years, and during that time, it will be used to explore UAS applications in emergency medical supply delivery, vaccine and sample delivery for diagnosis, and remote sensing for environmental assessment.

VStar Systems announces new MA-C MiniPod, a rapid deployment SIGINT Sensor

VStar Systems has announced the new MA-C MiniPod, which is a pod version of the company's MA-C SIGINT Sensor. VStar designed its MA-C Sensor System to provide signal intelligence such as “signal copy, signal identification and direction finding” to a wide variety of platforms. The MA-C system is designed to function as a “modular, scalable, flexible tactical COMINT sensor,” specifically intended to address design challenges posed by Class 2 or 3 UAVs, while also optimizing operator efficiency. Designed with flexibility in mind, the VStar Systems MA-C MiniPOD provides a “rapidly deployable communication intelligence solution.” The MA-C MiniPOD directly supports today’s warfighter needs and allows commanders to make better informed decisions, thanks to its ability to enable interception, direction-finding, and processing of tactical communication signals. “The MiniPOD is a natural extension of our existing sensor,” says Andy von Stauffenberg, CEO of VStar Systems, via a press release through sUAS News. “Our innovative, new design allows for quick integration into a variety of platforms within hours of delivery. This avoids costly and complex aircraft integration issues, enhancing mission effectiveness and saving the warfighter time and money.” VStar says that two active high frequency (HF) antennas allow for “intercept and copy of land mobile radios from both direct Line of Sight (LOS) as well as Near Vertical Incidence Skywave (NVIS) signals for Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) communication methods.” The MA-C MiniPOD can be installed on most standard airborne racks/missile launchers for integration on a plethora of different platforms. Being that it was designed for ease of use, it significantly decreases total life-cycle costs, and greatly decreases the operational and support function footprint, from initial integration through training, operations and support. Some of the MA-C MiniPOD’s features include “signal demodulation and copy of 160 simultaneous analog and digital channels, patent-pending buffered copy operation with over 100 buffered channels and providing frequency coverage in the HF/VHF and UHF bands.” Weighing in at only 40 pounds, the MA-C MiniPOD can be installed without any support equipment, and, it also includes VStar’s proprietary AutoTune and SmartDF Software Algorithms.

Kansas State Polytechnic becomes first university to receive waiver to fly UAS BLOS

Kansas State University Polytechnic Campus has become the first university to receive a waiver from the FAA to fly UAS beyond the line of sight (BLOS). The FAA certificate to Kansas State Polytechnic's Applied Aviation Research Center waives the rules regarding visual sight of aircraft operations by the pilot and visual observers, which will allow K-State Polytechnic to conduct research and operations where pilots and observers can no longer see their UAS. “These operations and research will provide valuable insight into regulation and safety measures for UAS in the national airspace,” says Travis Balthazor, Kansas State Polytechnic's UAS flight operations manager. “At the time of notification to us, the FAA's website showed only 20 waivers to this regulation, and only half are waived to allow small UAS operations where the remote pilot in command and the visual observers may not be able to see the aircraft.” Ultimately for Balthazor, this waiver is a “significant first step” in K-State Polytechnic’s efforts to “further develop the safety case for longer range small UAS operations.” “We have been working deliberately over the last two years to demonstrate our ability to safely adhere to the standards set forth in our waiver,” Balthazor adds. For Kurt Carraway, the Applied Aviation Research Center's UAS executive director, this waiver is important to K-State Polytechnic's research and partnership with the FAA in integrating UAS into the national airspace system. “This is a significant step in meeting our strategic goals of incorporating sound research and a safety centric approach to UAS operations to help the industry and the FAA continue to integrate UAS into the national airspace system,” Carraway explains. “We are pleased to have been a partner with PrecisionHawk in their Pathfinder II project, which gave us some of the baseline experience we needed to make the safety case.” A member of the Kansas UAS Joint Task Force, Kansas State University is also a key partner with the Kansas Department of Transportation, which was recently named one of the 10 participants in the FAA's UAS Integration Pilot Program. “This waiver is an initial component of the 'crawl, walk, run' aspect of our approach to larger-scale beyond-the-line-of-sight operations,” Carraway says. “In addition to our efforts affiliated with the Kansas Department of Transportation's Integration Pilot Program, we will offer flight operations training and consulting to help other entities gain similar waivers. This is consistent with the Kansas State University land-grant mission of transferring our knowledge to promote the greater good of the industry.”

Insitu's Integrator ER UAS delivers Group 4 and 5 capabilities in a Group 3 aircraft

During the Air Force Association’s annual Air, Space and Cyber Conference, Insitu announced its Integrator Extended Range UAS. The UAS, which is a beyond line of sight (BLOS), SATCOM-enabled small UAS capable of “ranging modern combat theaters,” delivers Group 4 and 5 capabilities in a Group 3 aircraft. Some of these capabilities include “high quality, full motion video on par with current ISR systems while flying at acoustically and visually undetectable altitudes; bandwidth throughput up to 10 megabits per second with a less than 1.5 second latency,” and a significantly reduced manpower footprint for operations, as it only takes a team of 12 operators, maintainers and mission commanders to operate the system.  “Insitu has always been at the forefront of customer-inspired innovation, and our exceptional team has delivered another ground-breaking capability,” says Esina Alic, Insitu president and CEO. “High quality, long endurance ISR - to include FMV and SIGINT- remains one of, if not the most requested and unmet need for the Department of Defense. With our announcement today, all warfighting units and coalition partners can have access to what was once a limited resource, getting this much-needed capability in the hands of the warfighter at a fraction of the cost of any current system available today.” Insitu says that Integrator ER allows users to save money by augmenting higher cost systems with a small UAS, which frees up the larger strike-capable unmanned assets to conduct more of the kinetic missions for which they were designed. Additionally, Integrator ER will put more eyes and ears in dangerous environments globally, giving troops on the ground a common operating picture that heightens their awareness and brings them home safely.

EQ-4 Global Hawk at Al Dhafra Air Base equipped with beyond line of sight capability

The EQ-4 Global Hawk flying missions from Al Dhafra Air Base (ADAB) can now operate beyond line of sight (BLOS), the Air Force has announced. Previously, the remotely piloted aircraft required coordination with other bases to control it while in the air, but now this can be done locally. “The BLOS plays a major role because it allows us to fly the jet farther than any Launch and Recovery Element could ever before, utilizing Satellite communication as its main link rather than a Line Of Sight link,” says Senior Airman Seth Oatridge, 380th Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron ground communication technician. With the BLOS capability, EQ-4 pilots and maintainers can plan, launch and execute missions locally without relying on other bases for missions that require a bird to be in the sky 24/7. “With everything being handled in house from all maintenance to the satellite communication work, it has drastically reduced the time it took us to ‘Scramble the Hawks’,” Oatridge says. The Hawk Aircraft Maintenance Unit ground communication technicians are responsible for keeping this technology operational. The Global Hawk was equipped with the BLOS capability in Sept. 2018 at the Al Dhafra Air Base, and the crew of satellite communication troops and cyber systems operations work to make sure everything is operational. “Anything that goes wrong with the equipment, we fix it,” says Senior Airman Michael Ha, 380th EAMXS grounds communication technician. “Our main mission here is to provide that communication to our ground troops and the BLOS allows this. Without us, they wouldn’t be able to keep the links up and communicate with ground troops leading to a mission failure.” The combined efforts between the Hawk AMU maintainers and the pilots of the 99th Expeditionary Reconnaissance Squadron has resulted in them now being able to locally conduct a number of different missions without having to reach back stateside for support.

Black Swift Technologies unveils Automated Emergency Safe Landing functionality for UAS

Black Swift Technologies (BST) has announced its Automated Emergency Safe Landing (AESL) functionality for UAS. When equipped with the functionality, Black Swift’s S2 UAS is able to capture and classify images, at altitude, which allows UAS to autonomously identify a safe landing area in the event that something goes wrong, which the company notes is extremely important for safe beyond line of sight (BLOS) flights. BST adds that this functionality processes large amounts of data quickly and efficiently, allowing objects and terrain to be identified to be avoided in order to land the aircraft without harm to people or property. “Our emphasis is to make UAS operations safer for both operators and the public,” says Jack Elston, Ph.D., CEO of Black Swift Technologies. “The goal of AESL is to be able to take a snapshot and within 60 seconds of something like a catastrophic engine failure, be able to identify a landing zone, calculate a landing trajectory, and safely land a UAS away from people and obstacles. We remain convinced that a thorough understanding and integration of artificial intelligence and machine learning can help serve as a catalyst for accelerating UAS growth and adoption industry-wide.” BST developed the AESL functionality thanks to a NASA SBIR Grant that it was awarded. The company also leveraged an ongoing collaboration with a Colorado-based technology company called Luxonis LLC that specializes in embedded machine learning, artificial intelligence, and computer vision, from concept through custom hardware, firmware, software and UI/UX. “This technology uses video or still imagery of the ground to determine what those objects are (Figure 1), and classifies them as humans, vehicles, and/or structures—things you have to avoid at all costs, even if it’s at the expense of the aircraft—to identify safe landing areas for a UAS in distress,” explains Brandon Gilles, CEO, Luxonis LLC. “Leveraging machine vision and artificial intelligence, AESL enables a human-like perception of the world where autonomy doesn’t have to rely entirely on GPS, altimeters, or the like. This system can visually understand what’s around it and make decisions accordingly, in real-time.” According to BST, the AESL functionality can serve as a “significant stepping stone” towards obtaining FAA exemptions for safe BLOS flights, but the company points out that the “most striking feature” that observers and users are describing is the “size of the components and their power requirements”—which are considered pretty low, BST says— for what’s actually doing this image capture/processing onboard the aircraft. “This is a very complex solution,” says Austin Anderson, Machine Learning lead engineer, Black Swift Technologies. “It is a robust, onboard data collection system with a very small footprint and low power requirement. It enables real-time data collection and the ability to review massive amounts of imagery that a human alone could not. Now users can gather this high level of intelligence without having to lug around a giant, power-hungry system.” AESL functionality is currently exclusive to BST’s purpose-built UAS platform, but Elston says that it “doesn’t preclude pairing its technology with third-party systems.”

UAVOS, KACST developing Flight Control System for multi-mission, multi-domain UAS

UAVOS and King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST) in Saudi Arabia are collaborating on the scientific research and development of the Flight Control System (FCS), which is designed to fit and leverage multi-mission, multi-domain UAS platforms. As a result of their shared experience and first-class knowledge, UAVOS and KACST have created a Saker-1B Medium Altitude Long Endurance (MALE) UAS. More than 500 hours of day and night test missions under various weather conditions have confirmed the drone’s specifications. In total, 1,000 hours of take-off and landing test missions have been successfully performed, with the long endurance flights lasting up to 19 hours. UAVOS notes that the UAS is equipped with a satellite communication data link for Beyond Line of Sight (BLOS) operation. “Our ultimate goal of the scientific research and development partnership is to make UAV technologies, which can turn vision into the UAV of tomorrow,” says UAVOS CEO and Lead Developer Aliaksei Stratsilatau. “For 10 years in partnering with KACST, we hold to a singular and enduring mission: to make breakthrough technologies for the unmanned system industry.” As noted by Stratsilatau, UAVOS and KACST have collaborated on the development of Flight Control System capability for UAS for 10 years. The R&D partners have finished performing the flight tests of their UAS in Saudi Arabia to verify easy and fully autonomous online and offline operation of the UAS from takeoff to landing. These test missions were conducted after several other successful operational exercises that were performed in recent months. UAVOS says that the Saker-1B MALE UAS has proven capable of operating in harsh desert with long endurance, high altitude and high speed flights. High performance of satellite data link for command and control was demonstrated. The UAS also got sustainability to jamming attacks and advanced data security, thanks to the current UAVOS autopilot technology being available. The Saker-1B performed several heavy weight landing tests with the maximum weight (MTOW) of 2,500 pounds. To confirm overall system performance and the drone’s readiness for real applications, several payloads were tested in surveillance experimental missions. When flying within line of sight, the UAS uses a direct radio link, and switches seamlessly to a satellite link when flying BLOS. An advanced UAS with the ability to operate fully autonomously, the Saker-1B MALE is equipped with automatic taxi-takeoff and landing systems, satellite communication for extended range, and fully redundant avionics. The UAS is not only designed to operate in harsh environments, but it is also adopted to perform in extremely hostile, dry and dusty ambient air. The UAS can fly for more than 19 hours at an altitude of up to 16,500 feet with a range of 1,600 miles.

Weekend Roundup: July 10, 2020

This Week (and last week) in the Unmanned Systems and Robotics World Parrot has made several announcements over the last few weeks. Last week, the company announced the launch of its ANAFI USA drone, which is designed for first responders and enterprise professionals. This week, the company announced partnerships with Hoverseen and the Airborne International Response Team (AIRT), respectively. Florida Governor Ron DeSantis recently signed several environmental bills. One of the bills will allow the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and the Florida Forest Service to use drones to manage and eradicate invasive species on public lands. (News4Jax) In collaboration with Ava Robotics, researchers from MIT have developed a UVC light-equipped robot that is designed to keep shared spaces free of the coronavirus and other pathogens. The robot can travel through and disinfect spaces autonomously. (Engadget) A new internship program has launched at Oklahoma State University’s Unmanned Systems Research Institute. A $25,000 research grant will support up to 12 OSU student internships scheduled to run from June to Aug. 15. (The Oklahoman) Pudu Technology, a robotics research and development startup based in Shenzhen, China, has announced that it has raised more than $15 million in funding. The company will use the funds to develop new products, expand sales, and explore markets overseas. (VentureBeat) Chinese autonomous vehicle startup WeRide has announced that it has become the first autonomous company to start fully driverless vehicle testing in China. Backed by Nissan, Renault and Mitsubishi, the three-year-old company began tests on Wednesday, July 8 on open roads in a designated area of Guangzhou after the southern Chinese city granted permission. (Automotive News) Mountain View-based Wisk has quietly been working on autonomous air taxis that it says will allow commuters to skip the traffic with short-range flights soaring over jammed highways. The company has developed a 21-foot-long airplane that can carry up to two passengers. The prototype model has undergone more than 1,000 test flights. (Mountain View Voice) An autonomous driving startup from Hungary called AImotive is leveraging its technology to help with autonomous satellite operation. AImotive will work with satellite and space-based technologies supplier C3S to develop a hardware platform for performing AI operations onboard satellites. (TechCrunch) The Chula Vista Police Department in Chula Vista, California has become the first police department in the U.S. to receive approval from the FAA to fly its drones beyond line-of-sight. The department has purchased the American-made Skydio drones for these flights. (CBS News 8) Virginia Tech researchers at the Center for Marine Autonomy and Robotics have partnered with Dive Technologies to support the development and testing of a novel AUV with innovative vehicle design and state-of-the-art control, software, and autonomy systems. (The Roanoke Star)

Black Swift Technologies contracts with NOAA to develop a backup navigation system for when standard GPS fails

Jamming. Spoofing. Interference from the landscape or cityscape. Interference from other flight equipment. Such snarls arise often enough with satellite signals to make it clear: Routine UAS flight beyond the line of sight (BLOS) will likely never happen with traditional GPS technology alone. To assure safe travel over long distances, unmanned aircraft systems need greater capability to ensure accurate positioning and routing. With the need for a GPS-denied navigation solution in mind, NOAA’s Small Business Innovation Research Program has contracted with Boulder, Colo.-based Black Swift Technologies (BST). The 10-year-old company, known for designing UAS that can fly scientific payloads in demanding environments, has agreed to spend the next two years developing a diverse-source global positioning system (DS-GPS) as a backup for standard GPS. Basically, GPS is a single point of failure as far as a navigation solution,” said BST CEO Jack Elston. He ranked the need for GPS-denied navigation capability as perhaps the second greatest obstacle to BLOS, after the need for failsafe collision-avoidance technology.  “If GPS fails, you either have to have a very safe way of getting the aircraft down, which is not always easy beyond the line of sight if you happen to be flying over a city for package delivery or something like that. Or you have to have another method for getting your position.” Instead of relying on satellite signals, the system that BST is developing uses augmented sensor suites. Sensors include cameras that enable machine vision and a software-defined radio that, together, help to ascertain the position of an aircraft. Also, by offering a basis for comparison, DS-GPS can help operators to gauge whether regular GPS is functioning correctly. GPS failure, Elston noted, can be hard to detect immediately – a point of uncertainty that underscores the risk of total reliance on GPS in BLOS flight. In an early test that employed both standard GPS and machine vision to chart the same flight path, machine vision was able to match GPS keypoint by keypoint with a maximum error of 10 meters, Elston said. He expects that level of error should diminish considerably as development of DS-GPS continues.    Phase I of BST’s roughly $500,000 contract with NOAA began mid-2020 with a preliminary feasibility study. In January, BST got approval to enter Phase 2, during which the company aims for DS-GPS to reach commercial viability. The biggest challenge, Elston said, will be finding the right data-gathering formulas for different flight conditions. “We’re doing some fairly advanced machine vision algorithms,” he said. “So getting that integrated with the system will take some time. And it requires a lot of work to make sure that it works well above all sorts of different terrain and in different weather conditions, times of year, things like that.” The end goal is a module that could be plugged into existing hardware on aircraft large enough and with enough battery power to be candidates for long flights. For testing, BST is using its own S2 UAS. BST intends to market DS-GPS to NOAA for such uses as surveying U.S. coastlines as part of NOAA’s National Geodetic Survey. Without BLOS capability, coastline survey teams can map only 2 miles at a time before they must relocate. Other applications for drones that could become vastly more efficient with BLOS capability include aerial imaging, environmental observation, precision agriculture, and infrastructure monitoring and inspection.  

The FAA UAS Symposium 2020 - Remotely Piloted Edition

Tuesday, August 18, 2020 (All day) to Wednesday, March 31, 2021 (All day)
FAA UAS Symposium 2020