Drone Development Moves Ahead

January 21, 2014 by  
Filed under Features

As the controversy regarding unmanned aerial vehicles, also known as unmanned aircraft systems or drones, for commercial use continues, the development of drones moves ahead unabated, with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) recently announcing its approval of six locations to carry out drone research, three of which are universities – the University of Alaska Fairbanks, Virginia Tech, and Texas A&M University. The general public may have associated drones with the military in the past, but with the November 2013 appearance of Amazon.com’s CEO Jeff Bezos on 60 Minutes where he announced that his company is looking at using drones for deliveries, unmanned aircraft have become a much discussed topic, and raised a number of concerns regarding privacy and safety.

Drones come in all shapes and sizes, and are already widely used in industry and surveillance, as well as in search and rescue operations. Currently 56 government agencies have permission to operate drones within 63 designated drone sites in the United States, besides the six new locations earmarked for drone research. An example of surveillance application of a drone is the MQ-9 Reaper manufactured by General Atomics which is used to patrol the borders of the United States to detect drug dealers and illegal immigrants. In industry small drones, or nano-drones, are routinely used to access areas too small or too dangerous for humans to enter.

Other current and proposed uses for drones include spraying of pesticides on farms; herding and monitoring of livestock (which is reportedly already happening in England), forest fire detection (already being used in France); conservation surveillance of wildlife (already being used in Kenya and Nepal); mapping of land in high-resolution photographs and videos; delivering aid in rural and underdeveloped areas (a project supported by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation); and monitoring archeological sites to prevent vandalism and theft.

While drones may be unmanned, they are not autonomous – yet. Drones must be remote controlled by a trained operator and may not fly above a height determined by the authorities in the area. This is an obstacle Amazon.com will need to overcome if their drone delivery system, dubbed Amazon Prime Air, is to be efficient and cost effective. The FAA is set to revise its regulations regarding drones by 2015 and the aviation authority has predicted that there will be up to 20,000 active drones in the US by 2017, an estimate that many consider to be very conservative. Privacy and safety issues will no doubt continue to be raised, and hopefully addressed, in the coming years as drones become more commonplace.

Development of X-47B Ready to Move Forward

October 18, 2011 by  
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The most recent test flight of the Northrop Grumman X-47B unmanned aircraft at Edwards Air Force Base resulted in a new goal being reached in the process of developing the aircraft for use in 2013. The futuristic, somewhat UFO-shaped drone effectively retracted its landing gear, flying in cruise configuration, a new achievement for the engineers. This landmark test flight aided the engineers in validating the precision navigation software and hardware that will be used when the Northrop Grumman X-47B is required to land on the deck of a Navy aircraft carrier.

The Northrop Grumman X-47B is part of the United States Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Carrier Demonstration (UCAS-D) program. The program was put in place to create unmanned aircraft that are suitable for carriers, developing technologies for Launch, Recovery and Carrier Controlled Airspace procedures, as well as Autonomous Aerial Refueling. Roll out of the vehicle was on 16 December 2008 at Air Force Plant 42, located in California. Since then various tests have taken place in developing the X-47B for the Navy. Sea trials are planned for 2013, following three years of testing at Edwards Air Force Base and Naval Air Station Patuxent River. The demonstration aircraft has the same mass and size as the planned operational vehicle and will be used to display launches and recoveries from carriers, along with inflight refueling.

Northrop Grumman’s X-47B has a wingspan of 62.1 ft, length of 38.2 ft and height of 10.4ft, along with an empty weight of 14,000 lb. The cruise speed is 0.45 mach, with a subsonic maximum speed. The maximum unrefueled range of the aircraft is in excess of 2,000 miles. There are two weapon bays, although it carries no weapons.

Following the successful test flight of the X-47B, Janis Pamiljans, who serves as the vice president of the Navy Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstration program for Northrop Grumman, was quoted as saying that the flight provided the team with a look at the X-47B air system’s aerodynamic cruise performance, and all went according to plan. The air system is ready to move on to the following phase of flight testing.

3D Printed Aircraft Innovation

August 2, 2011 by  
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The aviation industry is developing in leaps and bounds, and has recently introduced a new innovative procedure that will add value to the future of aviation. A specialized printer has been used in various industries, such as in the design of machine components, parts for racing cars, and even medical implants, as it is able to print a 3D image of the specific item or object requested. Now this printer has been pushed to test its capabilities, and has proved to be successful in producing a 3D image of an unmanned aerial vehicle, which opens the doors to new horizons for aviation.

The first 3D structure is called the Southampton University Laser Sintered Aircraft. The printout is extremely detailed and sophisticated, as it even includes hatches, control surfaces and its wings. The procedure uses various manufacturing techniques that include laser sintering, which has enabled the team to visually demonstrate the progress they have made in designing Unmanned Aerial Vehicles. The project, DECODE, is funded by EPSRC, and was printed out for viewing on an EOS EOSINT P730 Nylon Laser Sintering Machine. This machine is able to created items layer for layer, which means no fasteners are used, enabling the model to be fabricated without any additional tools within minutes, and can fabricate items from metal and plastic.

A miniature autopilot will be created for the aircraft that has a wing span of two meters and is electrically powered. It has an incredible top speed of almost a hundred miles an hour. This project has shown the aviation industry that there are various options open to them in the manufacturing of parts that could save time, as present techniques would have taken months to create the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle that was unveiled by the Southampton University project.

It is evident that the 3D printers are filtering into various industries, with culinary students at Cornell University using their 3D food printer to create cakes and even NASA is investigating the viability of this technology to manufacture parts for their projects. It is foreseen that 3D printers will become common equipment in factories, along with foundries, milling machines and presses. And with the creation of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle, 3D printers might become more popular as the aviation industry moves forward.

The Taranis Unveiled

July 26, 2010 by  
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Taranis, the god of thunder in Celtic mythology, is depicted with a Jupiter wheel in one hand and a thunderbolt in the other. It is also the name of the latest project undertaken by the United Kingdom to improve their military capabilities and transform the face of military weaponry. The Taranis is an unmanned stealth aircraft that has been under construction for the last four years, and was recently unveiled to the world. Its unique design and state-of-the-art technology will change the dynamics of long range combat.

BAE Systems, which is located in Warton, has been working tirelessly on the Taranis project, overseeing its design and weaponry technology. It has cost £142.5m to complete this magnificent prototype and flight tests are scheduled to start in 2011. One of the most important features of the Taranis is its ability to fly deep into the territories of the enemy without being detected by ground radar. It will not only be used as a method of attack, but will also be able to gather vital intelligence. The Taranis’ extraordinary aeronautical design has enabled it to take on the same measurements as a light aircraft, and it is also able to reach high speeds to be able to keep up with jet aircraft. As an attack aircraft, the Taranis has been designed to carry a variety of weapons, including missiles and bombs. Due to the fact that the Taranis is an unmanned aircraft, no lives of pilots will be risked, allowing the Taranis to take on missions that are deemed too dangerous for pilots.

The extremely innovative design and construction of the Taranis is a great achievement for the United Kingdom. The Minister for International Security Strategy, Gerald Howarth, commented on the success of the project by saying: “The first of its kind in the UK, it reflects the best of our nation’s advanced design and technology skills and is a leading program on the global stage.” The maintenance and running of the Taranis will also be at a lower cost than manned aircraft, and it is hoped that this spectacular example of UK engineering will pave the way for future military aircraft.


February 9, 2009 by  
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Unlike most of the military aircraft that Northrop Grumman designs and manufactures, the X-47A Pegasus was not built because of demand from the U.S. military. Instead, Northrop constructed the X-47A Pegasus at their own cost. Northrop wanted to prove that building prototypes of unmanned vehicles could be done cheaply and quickly without sacrificing quality. Northrop engineers were especially interested to design unmanned airplanes that could be automatically operated from aircraft carriers with minimal assistance from humans.

The X-47A Pegasus is a tailless airplane constructed from mostly composite materials, decreasing its overall weight and fuel consumption. Composite materials offer the additional advantage of requiring far fewer fasteners which means less overall drag and less likelihood of radar detection.

The X-47A Pegasus completed its first test flight in February 2003. By then, the airplane had been incorporated into the Joint Unmanned Combat Air Systems (J-UCAS) project. This was a project that involved both the U.S. Air Force and the Navy. The X-47A Pegasus was one of two unmanned aircraft in the J-UCAS program. The other unmanned aircraft was Boeing‘s X-45C.

In August 2004, Northrop Grumman was awarded a contract to develop two full-scale X-47B unmanned aircraft. The X-47B is a larger version of the X-47A, with the prototype expected to be completed by early 2010. Northrop Grumman will also be responsible for developing two mission control systems for the unmanned aircraft.

Maximum speed: High subsonic
Combat mission radius: 1,500 plus nm strike capability, or 1,000 nm distance with two hour loiter time carrying a 4,500 pound payload
Ceiling: 30,000′ plus (9.144 km)
Length: 8.50 m
Wingspan: 8.47 m
Height: 1.86 m
Empty weight: 1,740 kg
Maximum weight: 2,678 kg
Performance Maneuverability: Plus 3 Gs
Payload: 2,040 kg
Engine(s): Pratt and Whitney Canada JT15D-5C turbofan engine
Crew: Unmanned
Armament: None
Contractor: Northrop Grumman

NASA Spends $25M to Explore Earth

August 12, 2008 by  
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The name NASA is usually associated with space exploration, but it seems the association is aiming a little lower with its most recent project – the purchase of two unmanned aircraft for use in long-duration, high-altitude Earth science missions. The association will also be paying Northrop Grumman plenty of money to keep the program up and running over the next five years.

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NASA Commissions Study on Impact of Advanced Aircraft

July 17, 2008 by  
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Earlier this week NASA awarded a $12 million grant to two companies who are to study the impact that a variety of new aircraft have on the nation’s air traffic control system. The two companies, Raytheon and Sensis, have each received $6 million contracts to conduct the necessary research.

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nEUROn Project Takes Off

July 11, 2008 by  
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For some time now Dassault Aviation has been taking part in the continuous pan-European nEUROn program by experimenting with autonomous flight. Now they finally look set to celebrate their first fully autonomous flight making use of the AVE-D technology demonstration airframe.

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New Garrow Aircraft A Novel Concept

June 26, 2008 by  
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At first glance it resembles some sort of toy – a sort of cross between an airboat and a paper jet – yet the new Verticopter is certainly not just a fanciful plaything for children. This innovative new aircraft is the latest creation to be developed by Garrow Aircraft and it is almost ready for mainstream production.

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Odysseus Unmanned Aircraft Revealed by Aurora

April 23, 2008 by  
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Aurora Flight Sciences recently revealed the details of its new solar-powered airplane at the Boston Museum of Science. Called Odysseus, the radical new aircraft is not only unmanned, but it can stay aloft for up to five years. Aurora has been working in conjunction with its partners Sierra Nevada, Draper Laboratory and BAE Systems.

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