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unmanned systems

Two-in-One Unmanned Aircraft

February 25, 2013
By George I. Seffers

U.S. Navy technology may allow in-flight conversion from helicopter to fixed wing.

Researchers at the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory are developing unmanned aircraft technology that will allow the conversion from a vertical take-off and landing system to a fixed-wing craft during in-flight operation. The conversion capability will provide the take-off and landing flexibility of a helicopter with the longer range, higher speeds and lower wear and tear of an airplane.

The technology demonstrator is referred to as the Stop-Rotor Rotary Wing Aircraft. It is capable of cruising at about 100 knots, weighs less than 100 pounds and can carry a 25-pound intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) or electronic warfare payload, such as the Expendable, Mobile Anti-submarine warfare Training Target (EMATT). “We decided to do a demonstration vehicle that could carry an EMATT. It’s like a little submarine that can generate sonar signals, and it’s for training anti-submarine warfare operators,” explains Steven Tayman, an aerospace engineer at the Naval Research Laboratory. “It’s a neat payload.”

The unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) includes a removable payload bay that is about 12 inches wide, 38 inches long and six inches deep with “bomb bay doors” for dropping payloads, such as sonobuoys. “You could use a UAV to deploy a sonobuoy field, which would be pretty exciting,” Tayman says. “There’s really no limit to the payload other than volume.”

NASA Leverages 
Video Game
 Technology for Robots and Rovers

February 11, 2013
By Max Cacas

Earthbound technologies and computer programming that make most popular video games possible are driving development of the remote-controlled robots now in use by NASA in the unmanned exploration of Mars and the solar system. Those improvements in both hardware and software also spur innovation in the next generation of robots envisioned for use by government and industry. That is important because NASA recently has proposed a new, multiyear program of sending robot explorers to Mars, culminating in the launch of another large scientific rover in the year 2020.

“The technologies and the software that the video game industry has developed for rendering data, scenes, terrain—many of the same visualization techniques and technologies are infiltrating into the kinds of software that we use for controlling spacecraft,” according to Jeff Norris, manager of the Planning and Execution Systems Section with NASA’S Jet Propulsion Laboratory (JPL) in Pasadena, California. In a similar way, joysticks and gaming consoles such as the Microsoft XBox Kinect are examples of gaming technology hardware that have functional analogues in the systems used to control robotic spacecraft.

Sensor, Listening
 Device Integration
 Provide Battlefield Intelligence Boon

February 1, 2013
By Clarence A. Robinson Jr.

Industry opens up an array of real-time imaging

Sweeping advances in sensor technologies are enabling wide-area airborne persistent surveillance on both manned and unmanned aircraft. Emerging sensor systems can provide high-resolution mosaic imagery for large swaths of the battlefield while focusing on individual objects.

These intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) sensor systems are winning their spurs on the battlefield in Afghanistan. They are meeting combat commanders’ urgent operational requirements to provide city-size area coverage. These sensors simultaneously can focus on and track individual vehicles and dismounted hostiles.

Sensor systems such as the Autonomous Real-Time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS) offer radical improvements for ISR. This sensor system was developed for special operations by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA). BAE Systems provides the optics and processing technologies. Argus was envisioned to be mounted in a pod on the A-160 Hummingbird (SIGNAL Magazine, June 2007, page 43, “High Hover”) unmanned rotary wing aircraft headed for Afghanistan. However, an A-160 crash during trials prior to deployment is delaying the move.

Testing with the sensor pod mounted on a Sikorsky Blackhawk helicopter continues before combat deployment. This slight deployment delay also is enabling incorporating more recent advances in both sensor and processing technologies. ARGUS-IS also may be mounted on other unmanned aircraft, such as the MQ-9 Reaper, extending time on station. The camera is being considered for additional multiple wide-area persistent surveillance programs.

Robotic Autonomous Activities Advance

December 13, 2012

A vision-driven robotic arm will enable the precise long-range delivery of a payload weighing up to one pound into difficult-to-reach environments.

 

Swarming to a Better Robot

November 1, 2012
By Max Cacas

Unmanned underwater vehicles mimic nature and collaborate on tasks.

Robotics experts are using the swarming behavior of insects and fish as a model for software that will operate the next generation of underwater robots. Fleets of robots not only will be able to navigate to a common goal, but they also will have the means to deal autonomously with unanticipated factors, much as insects and fish can change behaviors based on the circumstances.

In nature, a swarm consists of many individuals with the innate ability to behave individually but operate toward a collective goal as needed. In a similar fashion, scientists are developing advanced mathematical algorithms and software to give underwater robots the ability to navigate toward the same location while also enabling them to deal independently with changing factors such as currents, obstacles and even other approaching ships that are not part of the swarm.

The distinction between a group of robots that individually receive the same programming to reach the same goal and a group of robots that behave like a swarm is that the swarming vehicles collaborate to achieve a set of tasks, explains Pierre Lermusiaux, head of the Multidisciplinary Simulation, Estimation and Assimilation Systems (MSEAS) research group in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). The set of tasks and the collaboration give the swarm a purpose, he adds, and that purpose becomes an added factor in the mathematical programming of the robots. Lermusiaux leads a team of mechanical engineering graduate students and research scientists with expertise in mathematical algorithms and their application in robotic systems.

Era of Change for 
Unmanned Systems

November 1, 2012
By George I. Seffers

The next five years will be as exciting as the last decade--but in a different way.

Unmanned vehicles will undergo an array of changes in the coming years brought about by the war in Afghanistan winding down, budgets tightening and the national strategy shifting toward the Asia-Pacific region. Adjustments may include the retirement of some unmanned air systems, a stronger focus on refining existing unmanned planes rather than fielding new ones and increased research and development of land and maritime technologies.

The U.S. military will not be fielding many new unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to the current war, but the situation is not all gloom and doom, says Dyke Weatherington, director, Unmanned Warfare and Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance, Strategic and Tactical Systems in the Office of the Under Secretary of Defense for Acquisition, Technology and Logistics. “The last 10 years have been very dynamic. We’ve seen rapid growth and huge increases in force structure. My guess is that the next five years will be equally dynamic in a different way. There’s huge potential for continued capability increases in ISR [intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance] for the warfighter. I just think that’s going to look a little different than it has in the last 10 years.”

For the most part, that means the U.S. military will take capabilities it already has for UAVs and refine those as much as possible. Improvements could include fielding new capabilities to existing platforms, enhancing current payloads or reducing ownership costs, he explains.

Mixing With 
Manned Aircraft

November 1, 2012
By George I. Seffers

A new crash avoidance 
system will allow both 
manned and unmanned
 planes to operate 
in U.S. airspace. 

The U.S. Army is developing a collision avoidance system that will allow unmanned and manned aircraft to fly in the same airspace more easily and safely. The first-of-its kind system will enable service operators returning from the war zone to fly drones in the same U.S. skies as civilian aircraft, keeping the warfighters proficient and ready for the next conflict.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) requires that a pilot be able to see and avoid other aircraft flying in the same airspace. But of course, drones have no onboard pilots. The Army currently has two FAA-approved options for meeting the requirement, and neither option is good, service officials say. The first is to fly a manned chase aircraft, such as a Cessna or a helicopter, behind the unmanned air system (UAS) to ensure it complies with FAA safety regulations. “It’s expensive. You can’t chase at night, and you can’t chase in clouds, so warfighters are limited,” says Viva Austin, Army product director for the Unmanned Systems Airspace Integration Concepts office. Another option is to use ground observers, but the observer must remain within about a mile and a half of the aircraft.

Pennsylvania State to Technologies for Unmanned Systems

September 30, 2011
By George Seffers

The Pennsylvania State University, University Park, Pennsylvania, was awarded a $34,077,057 cost-plus-fixed-fee contract for the research and development services in support of electro-optical and infrared technologies; night vision technology; and laser technologies and payloads for unmanned platforms. The U.S. Army Contracting Command, Research Triangle Park, North Carolina, is the contracting activity.

Air Force Tilts Toward Unmanned Aircraft

May 2011
By Robert K. Ackerman, SIGNAL Magazine

Future aircraft that break into several pieces mid-flight may represent a technological advantage rather than a catastrophic incident. The U.S. Air Force is looking to develop unmanned aircraft that introduce a new set of capabilities not available with humans in the cockpit. Among these many future possibilities are transformer-type vehicles that split into separate flying segments and then reattach when their mission is completed.

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