Innovative engineering in small companies has been responsible for many of today’s unmanned aerial vehicle developments in the U.S. One such company is Cloud Cap Technology, based in Hood River, Oregon. It provides low-cost autopilots and gimbals to a variety of small, mostly unmanned platforms. It was started by two pilot-engineers when they left another young company, located just across the Colombia River that divides Oregon from Washington state. That other company is Insitu, which developed the Scan Eagle UAV. And just as Insitu’s unique capabilities were snapped up by Boeing, Cloud Cap was bought in 2009 by a much larger aerospace firm that sees synergies–in this case, Goodrich.
“Cloud Cap developed the algorithms to produce a very versatile and highly integrated autopilot,” explained Jim Siekkinen, a Goodrich ISR Systems manager who became operations director at Hood River facility. The Piccolo flight management system provides a small but complete off-the-shelf package, including flight sensors, navigation, wireless communication and payload interfaces. Several different software configurations are available, as is a basic flight planning option as a free download.
Responding to demand from its growing base of small UAV customers, Cloud Cap then developed low weight, low-cost stabilized camera systems. The TASE family of micro-gimbals “have the key features of an 85-pound ball in packages weighing only one to five pounds,” said Siekkinen. They are ideal for low-altitude work by UAVs, helicopters and light manned aircraft, he added. They provide two-axis inertial stabilization plus optional software stabilization.
Since buying the company, Goodrich has added a GPS tracker so that the gimbal will automatically slew to waypoints inserted into Cloud Cap’s ViewPoint software for command and control and video display. The software includes advanced features such as real-time frame-to-frame video mosaicing to expand the display’s field of view, and the geo-location of live video onto a map, including terrain warping.
The scale and cost of this type of system is a far cry from the high-end airborne electro-optical sensors and ground-based exploitation systems for which the ISR Systems division of Goodrich is best known. Goodrich ISR Systems provides the podded DB-110 on the F-16, and the SYERS sensor developed originally for the U-2 spyplane, but now finding its way into space and onto the JSTARS radar surveillance aircraft.
However, in 2005 Goodrich also bought Sensors Unlimited, another innovative company that developed a state-of-the-art shortwave infrared (SWIR) linescan camera, which is the smallest of its type. The SWIR sensor can be carried within one of Cloud Cap’s gimbals, as part of an array of sensors covering other functions.