Drone developments: Avionics, fuel cells and swarms

January 18, 2017  - By
Image: GPS World

The first year I was at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) convention in 2012 (well before it became Xponential) in Las Vegas, Nevada, I spent a lot of time looking for any exhibitors who were thinking of business in commercial unmanned aerial systems (UAS).

At that time, the U.S. military had not yet suffered the major budget cuts that were to shortly impact extensive military development and use of UAS. So, asking around UAS developers at the AUVSI conference as to when they might think of applying their systems to commercial applications, and the potential changes that integration in the U.S. National Airspace System (NAS) might require … Well, there wasn’t much interest.

I often heard the response that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was so far away from allowing commercial UAS operations in the U.S. that it just wasn’t worth even considering what would be required.

In the years that followed, it has been somewhat refreshing to see the tone and shape of the annual AUVSI convention shift towards the commercial world. And with U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations now in place for sUAS, and with continuing growth in commercial and developmental operations, it’s clear that a good part of the industry is looking toward the civilian market. Not to say that military UAS development is lagging far behind, but it now seems that we have the prospect of a somewhat more balanced civilian/military marketplace for UAS.

Now, we not only have regularized commercial operations under FAA regulations, we are also hearing more often that Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAS applications are being developed and modes of operation are being established.

ADS-B (automatic dependent surveillance – broadcast) now appears to be one of one of the prevalent systems that BVLOS applications depend on, since the FAA is implementing ADS-B throughout the U.S., and it’s recognized as a likely component of increased-range UAS operations.

Avionics for Drones

uAvionix in California focuses on equipment aircraft, offering transponders and sensors for integration into UAS and for manned aricraft. Their latest ADS-B offering is a small, lightweight, low-power transponder for unmanned aircraft. Power consumption is low enough to be powered by battery pack for 2 hours, yet is powerful enough to provide visibility to other aircraft and UAVs up to 200 miles away, and uAvionix recently achieved U.S. Federal Communications Commission (FCC) approval for this unit. The ping200S is designed to meet the requirements of TSO-C199 as a Class A Traffic Awareness Beacon System (TABS).

When integrated with a suitable ADS-B GNSS receiver, such as the uAvionix pingNAV GNSS sensor, a UAS would become compatible with the ADS-B system — a significant step towards BVLOS operations. An ADS-B-equipped aircraft can detect and locate other aircraft and warn them of its precise position. The FAA has mandated that all aircraft operating in the NAS be ADS-B equipped by 2020.

PingNav is a small, light and low-cost ADS-B OUT compliant navigation source that supports GPS/QZSS, GLONASS, Galileo and Satellite Based Augmentation Systems (SBAS) and has a battery backup for quicker position initialization. The unit also has dual static ports for pressure altimeter readings and includes integrated security and integrity technologies, including Receiver Autonomous Integrity Monitoring (RAIM).

U.S. Department of Transportation Report

Meanwhile, the U.S. Department of Transportation (DoT) recently issued its final “Beyond Traffic 2045” report. The report discusses anticipated air, rail and road transportation challenges in the coming years.

UAS issues mentioned included drone delivery, noting that Google, Amazon and DHL have been evaluating use of unmanned aircraft for several years. Remotely piloted drone deliveries may shortly provide high value and/or urgent cargo to hard-to-reach locations; delivery of medical supplies in remote areas following a natural disaster has already been demonstrated.

Nevertheless, deliveries by drone in highly populated areas will require higher levels of security and safety and will have to overcome privacy risks, so it will likely take longer to verify these capabilities.

Anti-Drone Systems Forecast

Forecasts for growth of the drone market are already reaching heady proportions — one forecast expects sales to reach US$127 billion by 2020! But now the global anti-drone market is being forecast to reach US$1.14 billion by 2022. Maybe having lots of anti-drone systems preventing drone operations could slow down the growth of drone business itself?

Drones in the wrong hands are seen as a possible threat to our security systems, so detection and disabling drones is now becoming a requirement to support those security systems. Growth of the anti-drone market is being driven by more frequent security breaches by unidentified drones and by the use of drones for terrorist activities.

Fuel-Cell Power Drone

EnergyOr Technologies in Montreal, Canada, has been successful in developing and fielding compact fuel-cell products targeted at the growing drone market. Its EPOD fuel cell is the source of power for its H2QUAD 1000 drone, selected by French Air Force’s Centre d’ Expertise Aérienne Militaire (CEAM) for development testing under a Joint Development Agreement (JDA). The JDA is aimed at advanced development of long-endurance UAVs powered by EnergyOr’s fuel-cell system technology.

But what do you do when your fuel-cell-powered drone runs out of juice? For battery-powered drones, it’s easy to take them home and plug them in to recharge them, but their useful range and endurance is somewhat limited. So EnergyOr came up with a recharging system for its fuel cells — just hook up your tired drone to a portable hydrogen recharging set-up and you’re good to go again.

EnergyOr’s H2QUAD 1000 is a fuel cell powered
 quadrotor UAV capable of carrying a 1 kg payload 
for more than two hours, which is around four times longer
 than battery-powered UAVs. The turn-key solution includes a Ground Control Station (GCS), gimbaled 4K camera, portable hydrogen filling station and data acquisition/diagnostic system, as well as onsite operator training and engineering support.

Military Swarms?

Lastly, it appears that the U.S. military is taking on the challenge of using swarms of low-cost semi-autonomous UAVs for reconnaissance. During a full-scale test in October 2016, a swarm of 103 UAVs were deployed from three F/A‐18 Super Hornets over China Lake, California.

The “Perdix” (Greek mythology character who was turned into a partridge) swarm UAV was originally developed by MIT. It has two sets of wings with a 3D printed plastic body, a small rear-mounted propeller, is battery powered and carries a small camera. Perdix software has been refined considerably and is now sixth generation and has external update capability.

More than 670 have been flown, and the Department of Defense plans soon to produce them in batches of 1,000 — which might be a good thing, since they only have an endurance of around 20 minutes. Deploying drones from a fast jet can be a problem, but Perdix is now able to withstand the buffeting and turbulence from release speeds of Mach 0.6 and temperatures of -10° C.

After release, the swarm drones communicate with each other and perform formation flying exercises similar to a surveillance mission. But the swarm doesn’t precisely know how it will undertake a given task before it’s released — so each drone communicates and works with other drones, without a specific leader, and can readily adapt to drones joining or leaving the team.

To sum up, BVLOS advances using commercially available ADS-D avionics for drones, DoT planning for anticipated integration into U.S. national airspace (albeit warning that it may take more than anticipated for Amazon and others to eventually make deliveries using UAVs), growth in anti-drone systems keeping in step with the explosion in the market for drones, hydrogen fuel-cell powered drones, and military drone-swarms for surveillance. There is a lot going on in the developing UAV/UAS market sector.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This is posted in OEM, Opinions, UAV/UGV

About the Author: Tony Murfin

Tony Murfin is managing consultant for GNSS Aerospace LLC, Florida. Murfin provides business development consulting services to companies involved in GNSS products and markets, and writes for GPS World as the OEM Professional contributing editor. Previously, Murfin worked for NovAtel Inc. in Calgary, Canada, as vice president of Business Development; for CMC Electronics in Montreal, Canada, as business development manager, product manager, software manger and software engineer; for CAE in Montreal as simulation software engineer; and for BAe in Warton, UK, as senior avionics engineer. Murfin has a B.Sc. from the University of Manchester Institute of Science and Technology in the UK, and is a UK Chartered Engineer (CEng MIET).