Pros and Hobbyists Alike Pile In To Small UAV Market
Consumer electronics manufacturers, former toy and hobby suppliers, research university spinoffs and major aerospace companies are among the entities vying for a share of the simmering commercial market for small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) generally weighing less than 20 pounds. They are advancing numerous fixed- and rotary-wing designs, some of which were displayed at the Unmanned Systems 2014 conference in May and others elsewhere. Following is a description of some, although by no means all, of the recent showings:
Paris-based consumer electronics developer Parrot, exhibiting for the first time at the AUVSI show, introduced its in-development Bebop quadcopter, essentially a flying 14-megapixel “fish-eye” camera that also records and streams 1080p HD video. A three-axis image stabilization system fixes the angle of the view whatever the inclination of the aircraft and its movements caused by wind turbulence, Parrot says.
Weighing all of 14 ounces, the ABS-plastic reinforced Bebop can be flown either by an optional, yoke-like “Skycontroller” handset with a mounted tablet computer display or simply by a smartphone or the tablet alone. An HDMI port in the Skycontroller allows the user to plug in multimedia head-mounted displays such as the Oculus Rift, Zeiss Cinemizer, Epson Moverio or Sony Personal Viewer for “first person vision” of what the flying camera sees. With an embedded global navigation satellite system chipset, the Bebop can fly to user-defined waypoints; a “return home” function brings it back to its takeoff point. One limiting factor is that the Bebop’s lithium polymer (LiPo) battery keeps its rotors turning for just 12 minutes.
Perhaps mindful of the controversy in the U.S. over commercial UAS restrictions, Parrot employees staffing the company’s exhibit said the Bebop is intended for consumer use. But Parrot CEO Henri Seydoux, speaking to reporters a few days earlier at the Small Unmanned Systems Business Expo in San Francisco, reportedly said that he envisions architects, real estate agents and filmmakers finding the Bebop useful (see report at Dronelife.com).
One small UAS designed for commercial use out of the box is the eBee, a 1.5-pound flying wing developed by senseFly of Cheseaux-Lausanne, Switzerland. Parrot acquired a majority interest in the company, a spinoff of the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Lausanne (EPFL), in 2012.
The hand-launched and self-landing eBee is constructed of EPP foam and carbon fiber, with detachable wings. It can fly for 45 minutes to a radio-link range of 3 km (1.86 miles), driven by a LiPo battery-powered pusher propeller. The bird-like vehicle comes with a 12 megapixel Canon S110 NIR (near infrared) still camera as standard with various sensor options, each one “electronically integrated” in the aircraft’s autopilot.
The NIR band is “the region where high plant reflectance occurs,” supporting precision agriculture functions such as crop monitoring and calculating yield. SenseFly also advertises the eBee for surveying, mining and environmental management applications, and reports that several U.S. universities and the Ohio Department of Transportation are using it. The Parrot group company provides ground-station software that runs on a tablet computer and post-flight photogrammetry software that processes aerial imagery to 2-D maps and three-dimensional models.
The police in Mesa County, Colorado, are among the U.S. pioneers in using small UAS for law enforcement–the county’s public works department plans to begin flying the Trimble UX5 flying wing for aerial surveying. Similar in appearance to the eBee, the UX5, at 5.5 pounds, is heavier and faster, with a more powerful 700 W pusher-propeller motor. The catapult-launched airplane, constructed of EPP foam and carbon frame structure, has a communication and control range of 3.1 miles and 50 minutes’ endurance. It is a successor to the Gatewing X100 platform that came with Trimble Navigation’s acquisition of the Belgian company Gatewing in 2012.
Branded as an “aerial imaging rover,” the UX5, equipped with the 16.1 megapixel Sony NEX-5R mirrorless APS-C digital camera, provides surveyors and other “geospatial professionals” with photogrammetric data over several square kilometers in less than an hour. The operator programs the aircraft using the Trimble Yuma tablet computer, and it flies overlapping parallel sweeps of a predefined area. Trimble’s Business Center software processes the data to produce geometrically corrected “orthophotos,” contour maps, 3-D digital surface models and other “deliverables.”
Trimble Navigation, based in Sunnyvale, California, started shipping the UX5 for surveyors and mapping professionals in June 2013 and this January incorporated the aircraft within its agricultural product offerings. In combination with the earlier Gatewing model, “hundreds” have been sold in Europe, Canada, China and Latin America, said Todd Steiner, the company’s imaging business marketing director.
PrecisionHawk, with locations in Toronto, Canada; Raleigh, North Carolina; and Noblesville, Indiana, supplies the more conventional Lancaster Mark III, a three-pound, fixed-wing airplane with integrated sensor suite. The company started life in 2010 as WineHawk Labs with Bob Young, co-founder of software company Red Hat, as its first investor. It rebranded itself to PrecisionHawk in May 2013. “The change in company name…reflects a change in focus from specifically viticulture to broader agriculture, where there is a great need for precise data collection and cost-effective platforms for farmers and surveyors,” it explained at the time.
The Lancaster carries a range of sensors, including high-resolution RGB (red/green/blue) camera, multispectral, thermal infrared, light detection and ranging (Lidar) and hyperspectral. A water kit comes with a set of floats that enable the plane to take off from a lake surface and fly to a particular site, land and taxi to specific coordinates, collect a water sample and return. As of May, the Lancaster was flying in the U.S. under certificates of authorization (COAs) the Federal Aviation Administration granted to Kansas State, North Carolina State and Texas A&M universities. It was also flying in Canada, and PrecisionHawk reported interest in Australia, Europe and South America.
Bridging the Gap
Small UAS developers are bridging the gap between airplanes and helicopters with hybrid air vehicles. Aurora Flight Sciences’ 2.2-pound Skate, which the company supplied to the U.S. military in Afghanistan, is an airfoil-shaped structure with fins and propellers. It is both a fixed-wing and vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) platform. “Independently articulating motor pods allow the Skate UAS to rapidly transition between vertical and horizontal flight,” said Manassas, Virginia-based Aurora. “The thrust vectoring provided by the motor pods also enables extreme maneuverability and rapid navigation of congested environments, such as city streets and urban canyons.” Skate either flies autonomously to waypoints or by “fly-the-camera” piloting using a hand controller. It carries electro-optical, infrared, high-definition video and laser illumination pods.
Arcturus UAV of Rohnert Park, California, unveiled the Jump VTOL system conversion of its T-16 and T-20 fixed-wing aircraft in April, and then announced a larger Jump-25 development at the Unmanned Systems Conference. The system is based on “hybrid quadrotor” technology from Latitude Engineering of Tucson, Arizona, managed in transition by a Cloud Cap Technology Piccolo autopilot.
Booms fitted with vertical lift motors and rotors are mounted to each wing to provide vertical lift for takeoff and landing. “Vertical lift motors are shut off for winged flight and propellers are feathered longitudinally for minimum drag,” Arcturus UAV explained. “All flight control is fully autonomous. Arcturus Jump enjoys all of the versatility of a quadrotor while retaining the superior range and endurance of a fixed wing.” The conversion is aimed at both military applications and public markets for border protection, aerial mapping and search and rescue.
Fixed-wing designs have been miniaturized and optimized for remote-controlled missions, but it is multi-rotor helicopters that rule the small UAS roost. Companies are developing and producing numerous rotorcraft designs for applications that include farming, law enforcement and inspection of powerlines, pipelines, flare stacks and even airliners–as announced in May by UK carrier easyJet. At the high end of agricultural applications, perhaps the largest growth market for UAS, motorsport giant Yamaha seeks to reproduce in the U.S. the success it has had in Japan with the 207-pound RMax crop-dusting helicopter.
Also eyeing the market for unmanned aerial farming is Lockheed Martin, the world’s largest defense contractor with $45 billion in annual sales. The company has placed several of its five-pound Indago quadrotors with farmers in Minnesota, through a relationship it has with agricultural sensor manufacturer FourthWing Sensors of Minneapolis. FourthWing leases the Indago, its own Vireo hand-launched plane and the Altavian Nova Block III fixed-wing drone, equipped with its dual-band NIR and RGB sensor. The FAA endorsed the use of the UAS in a November 2013 letter, providing they are flown over farmers’ own property, for their personal use, and following Academy of Model Aeronautics guidelines, the companies say. Lockheed Martin also has a relationship with Detroit Aircraft in Michigan to deploy Indagos for “first responder and public utility” missions.
The Indago resulted from Lockheed Martin’s January 2012 acquisition of Procerus Technologies of Orem, Utah. Procerus developed the miniature Kestrel 3.1 autopilot system that controls the quadrotor, containing an integrated GPS/inertial navigation system sensor for geo-location and precise payload control. Soon after its acquisition, Procerus started work on an anticipated U.S. Army requirement for a 4.5-pound, “backpackable” VTOL system and hand controller. “At that point we were mainly focused on the avionics, ‘the guts,’ for the unmanned vehicle industry. We were trying to be the intel inside everyone else’s aircraft,” said Reed Christiansen, Procerus’s VTOL systems engineering manager. “Since Lockheed acquired us, we’ve branched out to provide avionics to Lockheed aircraft and we’re also [developing] complete systems.” As it happened, the Army requirement did not materialize, but the commercial market beckoned.
“Farmers need the data, they need regular overflights. This provides them with information satellites can’t provide,” Christiansen said. “Satellites fly over, [but] there could be cloud coverage, [so] you don’t have data that day. These can fly under the clouds and they can also be controlled by the farmer so they can get that regular and timely data.”
The Indago has a range of 5 km within line-of-sight and endurance of about 45 minutes with a 6-ounce payload. It is capable of multiple “hot-swappable” payloads and folds into a briefcase. Onboard video and high-resolution still photos are recorded to an SD memory card, which the farmer can plug into a computer or send to software company Superior Edge, of which FourthWing is a subsidiary, for analysis.
At a flight demonstration held in advance of the Unmanned Systems conference at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center, Ty Rozier exhibited the six-rotor, iPad-controlled Agri6 helicopter. His company, Orlando-based Elevated Horizons, integrates a 12-megapixel Canon camera, modified as a multispectral sensor, to keep down the cost of the system.
Produce giant Dole uses the Agri6 in Costa Rica, and Elevated Horizons is supporting Florida International University in a project to combat laurel wilt disease, which threatens avocado and other crops in the Redland district near Miami. “We’re working with FIU to gain a COA in order to fly unimpeded throughout their crops there,” Rozier said. “We’re using the drones to fly over and pinpoint certain locations that may be of interest, where this disease may be migrating, and then we have specially trained canine dog teams that go in and sniff out the disease.”
Long Arm of the Law
Law enforcement and public safety are other major market focuses for multirotor helicopters. Among its customers, Aeryon Labs of Waterloo, Ontario, Canada, supplies its foldable, snap-together Scout quadcopter to the Ontario Provincial Police (OPP) and the more robust, 6.2-pound SkyRanger to the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP). Both models completed trials under the Robotic Aircraft for Public Safety program sponsored by the U.S. Department of Homeland Security in Oklahoma, and the Scout was distinguished in May as the first UAS to take flight at an FAA-designated test site–the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range managed by the University of Alaska Fairbanks.
Launched in May 2013, the SkyRanger has a larger lithium polymer battery than its 2009-vintage predecessor and can fly for 50 minutes, double the Scout’s flight time. Aeryon emphasizes its ability to remain stable in 40-mph sustained winds with 55-mph gusts. The wind “does rock it, but the way our autopilot system works, it senses that, using the GPS and its wind position to try to maintain its position,” said Shaun Coghlan, Aeryon Labs senior product manager. “It will tilt the system as needed and power the different propellers” to right the aircraft. “If it’s gusting too much then it will start coming home.” Both models feature “hot swappable,” high-resolution EO/IR camera payloads.
Draganfly Innovations of Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, Canada, began in 1998 as a distributor of remote-control aircraft for the hobby market. A decade later, the company produced its first industrial helicopter, the Draganflyer X6. It is configured with three arms, each having top and bottom rotors. In January 2009, the X6 became the first commercial UAS to receive Transport Canada approval to operate full time in civilian airspace, the company said.
Next came the Draganflyer X8, a quad configuration aircraft with eight top and bottom rotors–the top spinning clockwise, the bottom spinning counterclockwise. “The reason for that configuration was to allow for more lift without making a bigger footprint,” explained Kevin Lauscher, Draganfly Innovations’ lead for police and industrial sales. The X6 has a payload capacity of 500 grams; the X8 carries twice that.
The X8 with camera and mount weighed nearly nine pounds and had limited endurance of several minutes. As cameras became smaller, Draganfly improved the X8 and extended its range, creating a new model line. “With smaller, better-sensored cameras, we were able to modify the X8’s airframe, remove the bottom four rotors and change the profile of the [remaining] rotors,” Lauscher said. “[We] sped them up, carried a lighter payload and increased our flight time with the payload by almost three times.” An X8 carrying a Canon T2i Rebel camera managed about six to eight minutes in flight. Fitted with a lighter, 20 megapixel Sony RX100 camera, the new Draganflyer X4-P (professional) and X4-ES (emergency services), which the company introduced in 2012, fly for about 24 minutes.
Draganfly has sold its multirotor commercial helicopters in Canada, the U.S., Australia, New Zealand, Europe and Asia. In Canada, the RCMP and the OPP have used Draganfly models. In the U.S., the aforementioned Mesa County, Colorado, Sheriff’s Department operates the X6 and the X4-ES, as well as the Falcon Hover and the bungee-launched Falcon fixed-wing UAS, supplied by Falcon Unmanned of Aurora, Colo. The FAA issued a COA to the Grand Forks County, North Dakota, Sheriff’s Department in November 2012 permitting it to operate the Draganflyer X6 in 16 counties in northeastern North Dakota. This March, the FAA granted the department a COA allowing it to use the X4-ES at night, a U.S. first.
The Grand Forks Sheriff’s Department also uses the 5.5-pound Qube quadcopter, the only helicopter in the mainly military small UAS line manufactured by AerVironment of Monrovia, California. The company claims flight endurance of 40 minutes for tubular aircraft. AeroVironment’s 13.5-pound, fixed-wing Puma AE, granted restricted-category type certification by the FAA in July 2013, flies for 3.5 hours.
Learning from Insects
Physical Sciences Inc. (PSI), a research-and-development company based in Andover, Massachusetts, exhibited its InstantEye quadrotor at the Navy League Sea-Air-Space conference outside of Washington, D.C., in April. The rotorcraft weighs less than two pounds fully loaded; on its underside it carries an infrared illuminator that can be used to flood an area from 200 feet off the ground without the aircraft being seen, and three standard cameras–forward, angled and downward–to return imagery to the ground. InstantEye also allows “plug and play” operation with the GoPro Hero3+ camera or FLIR Systems Quark thermal camera, and is being developed to carry a detector package for radiological or nuclear threats.
InstantEye was inspired by biomimetic research of insects, and PSI touts its robustness to operate in gusty wind conditions. A GPS hold mode allows the user to select a tight circle of GPS coordinates where the vehicle will hover. The aircraft operates to about 1 km line-of-sight range; endurance is 30 minutes with a lithium-ion battery strapped to its belly by Velcro. Aimed at military and law enforcement users, InstantEye was developed with funding from the U.S. Army Research Lab and the Pentagon’s Rapid Reaction Technology Office and Countering Terrorism Technical Support Office.
Some of the smallest and most interesting models on display in Orlando were of Welsh design. The AV Sparrow, developed by R&D and rapid prototyping firm Torquing Group of Pembrokeshire, Wales, measures 4.7 inches by 4.7 inches (120 mm by 120 mm) and weighs 3.5 ounces (100 grams). A sonar “bubble” protects it against colliding with objects and supports autonomous and indoor operation by military or special weapons and tactics police units. The quadcopter “can interact, avoid, land and return to operator [and] hold positions using GPS, inertial systems or the sonar.”
The AV Sparrow incorporates two 2-megapixel infrared cameras and built-in microphone, and can be fitted with nuclear, chemical and biological detection sensors. It can also be used by itself as surgical-strike explosive. Advertised range is 2 km line of sight, with 30 minutes’ endurance.
BCB International of Cardiff, Wales, a designer and manufacturer of survival and protective equipment, featured the seven-ounce SQ-4 Recon quadcopter. The SQ-4 can be operated either by remote control or autonomously flown using GPS waypoint navigation. It carries a 5-megapixel day/night digital camera and can fly out to 2.5 km with 25 minutes’ endurance. It is ideal for missions including “forward surveillance, damage assessment, coordination, exploration, measurement and observation,” BCB said.
German engineering will also factor in the small UAS marketplace. In March, Multirotor service-drone of Berlin announced the opening of an office in Boulder, Colorado, its first location outside Europe. The manufacturer of industrial-grade multirotor UAS selected Robotic Skies, the fledgling Part 145 repair station network for unmanned aircraft, to be its MRO provider. Delivery company DHL envisions the md4-1000 quadcopter manufactured by Microdrones of Siegen, German, as a Paketkopter. In December, testers flew the md4-1000 across the River Rhine to deliver parcels from a pharmacy to DHL’s headquarters in Bonn.
Organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), the annual Unmanned Systems conference is the industry’s largest gathering. This year’s event in Orlando attracted more than 7,000 attendees and nearly 600 exhibitors. In past years, the show was heavily military; that has changed as new and legacy exhibitors featured small but sophisticated models aimed at markets including law enforcement, firefighting, search and rescue, surveying, infrastructure inspection and precision agriculture.