Retailers, airspace, undetectable drones: UAV developments zoom ahead

June 17, 2016  - By

A lot is happening in the world of UAVs.

Amazon and Walmart are making plans toward faster delivery of goods by drone, while TV dramas bring drones into their stories. And evaluation and test of technologies to protect airports and aircraft from unwanted drone incursions is picking up speed — while sense-and-avoid technology takes big steps forward toward integration of drones in the U.S. National Airspace.

Amazon and Walmart. Amazon is working hard to enable deliveries using drones — even advocating a “high-speed” transit zone 200-400 feet above ground level. Delivery drones can then zoom between warehouse and customer carrying goods so orders show up super quick, right on your doorstep.

Proposed Amazon drone-traffic-control system.

Proposed Amazon drone-traffic-control system.

Drone-traffic-control would be automated — too many drones over too many cities to use conventional air-traffic control. With a buffer zone of 100ft above drone traffic and regular manned aircraft, and no-fly zones around airports, low speed localized drone-traffic would transit from the high speed area to the delivery point. And recreational model aircraft and other drones would be limited to flying in designated areas, or up to 200ft within drone-traffic-control segments. Amazon seems to indicate that the technology to enable all this is already pretty well there — it’s selling the concept and developing the regulations which will take the most time.

So not wanting to miss out on automation using drones, Walmart is now talking about using drones in warehouses to monitor stock levels. Inventory control currently uses manual stock-taking which takes up to a month for just one pass through a large facility — while a complete stock count is possible in one day using hi-res drone-camera data.

Walmart warehouse.

Walmart warehouse.

To keep pace with the competition for its on-line business, its essential for Walmart to avoid out-of-stock and overstocked items, and tight, rapid inventory control is the key. So drones in warehouses, and data analytics is where they are headed.

Walmart is already looking for approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to test home delivery using drones, so it may not be long before their drones get out of the warehouses and start testing how to fulfill online orders, too.

NCIS New Orleans. I was just thinking about this month’s drone update article while imitating a couch potato watching TV last evening, when NCIS New Orleans airs a show built around drones. A Predator pilot uses his day-time skills frying drone operations to search for a missing person. He buys an “undetectable drone” from a couple of drone geeks and makes aerial maps around his base. There were segments of simulated Predator operations, protests about overseas drone operations, an octocopter on the street in New Orleans and a DJI hobby drone flown on camera by a young boy. Other than a couple of technical errors, the show demonstrated just how much drones are now becoming part of our daily life, and how much the public is hearing about UAV technology.

And talking about undetectable drones — the FAA is using its Pathfinder Program to investigate a defensive system to protect airports from drone incursions. The FAA will evaluate a UK system known as Anti-UAV Defence System (AUDS) developed by Blighter Surveillance, Chess Dynamics and Enterprise Control Systems— the system is claimed to be able to detect, track, disrupt and defeat drones.

AUDS system.

AUDS system.

National Airspace. Increasingly concerned about reports of UAVs flying too close to an airport or to manned aircraft the FAA and the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) have been searching for a system that can defend against drones.

The AUDS system uses electronic scanning radar, precision infrared, daylight cameras and specialist video tracking software to detect and track even small drones up to six miles away. An inhibitor then disrupts the drone radio control signals. The whole sequence of detect, track, disrupt, defeat process typically only takes 8-15 seconds. And the system has already undergone over 400 hours of ‘live’ testing against small UAVs.

In addition, the MITRE Corporation — a technical service organization which supports several U.S. government agencies — is investigating products and technology to detect and stop drones, through a funded competition called “Countering UAS Challenge”. Eligible solutions need to detect small airborne UAS, and discern and interdict those that are perceived as threats, forcing them to be recovered safely with an intact payload. MITRE has now selected eight finalists who will compete in live flight tests in August to determine the winners of a $100,000 prize package.

So although efforts are underway to protect airports and aircraft from wayward drones, the bad press that drones have been getting recently might not all be appropriate. The FAA recently released drone sighting data for March this year which has now been analyzed in some detail by the Academy of Model Aeronautics (AMA). AMA found that within the 582 drone sightings reported only 3.3% appear to involve near-misses or close calls.

Drone Sightings. Given that over a million drones were sold during the 2015 Thanksgiving-Christmas holiday season, it does appear that drone “sightings” are on the decline, and related reports to law enforcement also appear to be going down. So its possible that the FAA drone registration program, and the industry-FAA Know Before You Fly have positively improved the operation of drones by the public.

And while we’re all looking for ways to detect and deter drones from the ground, General Atomics (GA) has announced the successful operational testing of an airborne anti-collision radar system which includes GA’s Due Regard Radar (DRR) and Honeywell’s Traffic Alert and Collision Avoidance System (TCAS) and Sensor Tracker. Tests were carried out aboard a U.S. Customs and Border Protection (CBP) Guardian UAS, a maritime variant of the Predator B.

GA’s Due Regard Radar (DRR) drone.

GA’s Due Regard Radar (DRR) drone.

During encounters with a Cessna fixed wing aircraft and a Blackhawk helicopter, safe separation was ensured between the UAV and the other traffic. Overland testing began at the GA facility near Palmdale, California, and concluded over the eastern Pacific Ocean. The tests confirmed that the pilot of the UAV had as a clear picture of surrounding air traffic as if he was flying in the cockpit of a manned aircraft. The tests also confirmed operational compatibility between the DRR radar and the maritime surface search radar carried by the Guardian UAV.

This is a significant step forward — albeit on a military drone — towards technologies which will ultimately enable integration of UAVs into the U.S. National Airspace. If we are also getting recreational operators to be more mindful of safely operating their hobby drones, and we can also prevent unwanted encroachment on airports and manned aircraft, then plans for delivery drones might also begin to make some progress.

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).