TOP UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLES TAKING FLIGHT

Perching UAVs 

Earlier this year, Stanford University researchers created a model-plane sized unmanned aerial vehicle that can fly directly to a wall and then land vertically on it, superhero style. Miniature spines on its feet allow the vehicle to cling to a surface. The feet, with help from the propeller, can be manipulated so the UAV walks the wall to get a better view.

“I am impressed with the engineering on the aircraft and the iterations they went through to get that configuration,” Kochersberger says. “It’s going to lead to new technologies.”


He says the UAV has the potential to sense data that would otherwise be unobtainable.

According to the Stanford team, the weather-resistant vehicle consumes very little power and can quietly monitor an area for days. No bat signal required.
In the same vein, a team at MIT designed a control system that allows a foam glider with a single motor on its tail to land on a perch.


MQ-9 Reaper 


TheU.S.Army’s MQ-9 Reaper isn’t exactly new but, along with the Predator drone, it has come a long way in flying continuous missions. The Reaper is a specialty airplane designed for surveillance and equipped with highly accurate laser-guided AGM-114 Hellfire missiles, infrared cameras, and electro-optical cameras on stabilized gimbals. 
It certainly isn’t cheap -- a four-vehicle Reaper system with sensors costs a cool $53.5 million -- but the advantage is that one can be operated entirely from the ground for customs and border protection.
“They’re flying 24 hours a day. If you look at the cost of a manned aircraft flying that many hours, it’s cost effective to keep them up,” Kochersberger says. “When you look at the manpower and the risks that are there to the operator, you’re not putting a pilot at risk.”

Modified RMAX Chopper

Kochersberger leads a team at Virginia Tech that transformed a 200-pound Yamaha RMAX helicopter so that it could potentially be sent out after a disaster to search for survivors and gather data on the extent of the damage. The federally funded project took Yamaha’s low-cost, remote-controlled crop dusting chopper and equipped it with autopilot and a special box containing a computer, payload radio, and customized circuit boards.

“Our helicopter is the only RMAX that’s flying any missions these days,” Kochersberger says. “Two people can easily handle it and set it up. In this case, it’s to get it up after a nuclear disaster and learn about the nature of the accident, and gather data without putting people in harm’s way in a radioactive environment.” He adds that the team is working on a tethered robot.



Fire Scout

The U.S. Navy’s pilotless robocopter, Fire Scout, had an adventurous test flight in the spring. Aviation Week reported that while the Fire Scout was completing surveillance sea trials from the USS McInerney, its operators spotted a speedboat suspected of drug smuggling. The Northrop Grumman vehicle is 31 feet long, ten feet tall, and has a 600-pound lift capacity.

Fire Scout’s remote operators wrapped up the test flights and decided to go after the speedboat. The chopper watched the boat for three hours and when it linked up with a fishing boat, law enforcement stepped in and seized about 60 kilos of cocaine.

In August, however, Navy operators lost control of the robocopter in restricted airspace above Washington, DC. Ultimately they regained control and landed it safely. The Navy blamed the incident on a software anomaly, and resumed unmanned flights in September. Usually human error is the issue, Kochersberger says. “The majority of the accidents are human ground control operator based.”

Zephyr

In July, British defense company QinetiQ’s solar-powered Zephyr broke the world record for flying nonstop without refueling. The thin 110-pound carbon fiber UAV stayed airborne for two weeks straight in Arizona. This version is about 50 percent larger than QinetiQ’s original version, and more aerodynamic. 

Kochersberger gives the Zephyr high marks. “QinetiQ has been at this for years,” he says. “It stores enough during the day to fly all night.” Paper-thin solar arrays cover the wings, providing power to the lithium-sulfur batteries that kept it aloft in the darkness. The defense company expects its record-breaking UAV will be ideal for conducting environmental research, providing remote communications, and monitoring areas during a natural disaster.

Phantom Eye

In July, Boeing unveiled a prototype for its hydrogen-fueled UAV, Phantom Eye. Designed to fly at 65,000 feet for up to four days straight, the vehicle has two 2.3-liter, four-cylinder engines, can carry 450 pounds of payload, and is scheduled to have its maiden flight in early 2011.

Kochersberger compares the Phantom Eye with DARPA’s Vulture program to create a five-year battery-powered UAV that can carry more than 1,000 pounds. While Vulture is more ambitious, he says there’s probably a two- or three-year development cycle before it flies.


Automatic Supervisory Adaptive Control


When several million dollars’ worth of technology is airborne, it also better be able to keep going after getting shot. The aviation technology company Rockwell Collins designed a flight control system that figures out what goes wrong when an airplane sustains catastrophic damage. The automatic system readjusts instantly to safely land the plane.

The system was successfully flight tested in 2008 on an unmanned FA-18 subscale model air vehicle sponsored by DARPA. In Aberdeen, Maryland, the test blew more than 60 percent of the plane’s wing off. The system automatically righted the plane, allowing it to land normally. Last summer, Aviation Week reported that the company has a contract to put its system in an operational UAV.

Rockwell Collins’ automatic supervisory adaptive control is based on the known flight control laws that govern the aircraft’s characteristics, Kochersberger says. 

“They developed a nonlinear flight control algorithm. It will sense the aerodynamics and fly in spite of those inefficiencies,” he says. “It’s really fast, too. If the wing comes off, it’s immediately stable again.” The technology has the potential to keep military personnel and civilian passengers safe.


Solar Eagle



DARPA’s Solar Eagle unmanned aerial vehicle is like a low-altitude satellite, Kochersberger says. The solar-powered UAV has loftier goals than the company’s hydrogen-powered Phantom Eye. Currently the Solar Eagle is being designed to have a 400-foot span between wings,   carry 1,000 pounds of sensors and payloads, and remain at 65,000 feet for five years. Yes, years.

 The $89 million project aims to begin flight-testing in two years.
 Kochersberger expects that the Solar Eagle will spin off new tech related to communications.  “Temporary wide area communications that are similar to satellites -- that’s a new industry that  would spring up from the use of the airplane,” he says.

A.R. Drone Parrot


When one thinks of UAVs, a toy isn’t the first thing that comes to mind. But that’s exactly what the A.R. Drone by French company Parrot is. The half-pound quadricopter is now on the market and costs around $300.

Its Wi-Fi system works with Apple’s platforms so the small chopper can be controlled using an iPhone, iPod Touch, or an iPad, and multiple players on a network can compete against one another with the vehicles. Other smart devices should work with the toy in the future, according to the company.

Kochersberger credits associate professor Mary Cummings for creating a similar vehicle in her Humans and Automation Lab at MIT. She and her students designed a one-pound quad-rotor UAV that has sensors and a built-in camera, and can be controlled using an iPhone.

“The Parrot toy, you could say it’s a game,” Kochersberger says. “But you could put a radio repeater in there to drive it behind the building and relay radio messages.”


Nano Hummingbird aircraft

A tiny, unmanned aircraft that resembles a hummingbird in size and appearance is able to flap and hover, just like the bird. The Nano Hummingbird aircraft, developed by Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment, is able to hover, rotate, fly sideways, forward and backward and climb and descend vertically. The palm-sized drone could one day do reconnaissance, capturing audio and video with miniature onboard cameras and microphones.
The Nano Hummingbird's wingspan is 6.5 inches, slightly larger than an

average hummingbird and with a speed of 11 miles per hour, it's about half as fast. But it's just the kind of mini spy plane that the Department of Defense, which funded the project through the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, is looking for. With the ability to perch on a window sill, fly in through an open doorway or hover above enemy camps, the aircraft could capture valuable strategic information. So far, it's a bit loud and not ready for mass-production. It still need a viable source of power that will hold it aloft for long periods. But drones that mimic birds are part of a military plan that also includes pigeon-sized vehicles that can recharge while perching on power lines.


Phantom Ray



On April 27, Boeing's unmanned drone, the Phantom Ray, successfully completed its first flight. It completed a serious of high-speed test flights above NASA's Dryden Flight Research Center at Edwards Air Force Base, Calif.
The Phantom Ray flew to 7,500 feet and reached a speed of 178 knots. The aircraft was built to perform missions that may include intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance; suppression of enemy air defenses; electronic attack; strike; and autonomous air refueling.
The Phantom Ray is part of Boeing's efforts to design, develop and build advanced aircraft using rapid prototyping. This technique allows three-dimensional parts to be designed on a computer and then printed using a 3D printer. By using rapid prototyping manufacturing techniques, Boeing hopes to use few tools and people to go from an idea to thing in a significantly shorter time frame