Substitute satellites, a better Reaper and drone deliveries top UAV news

July 15, 2020  - By

UAV developments are taking flight across the globe.

In one development, older technology might enable new capabilities for a pseudo-satellite UAV. Meanwhile, new technology adds significant landing capability to an Air Force drone. Finally, further trials are expected to help develop drone operational procedures and regulations in India.

Spain’s Skydweller moves to Oklahoma

An unmanned aircraft builder from Spain — Skydweller — is setting up operations in Oklahoma. This latest outfit to relocate is establishing its headquarters in Oklahoma City to develop a pseudo-satellite vehicle with a large payload capability.

For anyone who has kept tabs on the Airbus Zephyr, the UAVOS ApusDuo, The Aurora/Boeing Odysseus, or the Softbank/AeroVironment Hawk30 high-flying drone programs, you might have noticed that the stratospheric pseudo-satellite business is not easy. None have yet made it to true operational status — loitering for months at +60,000 feet and living off only sunlight, while carrying significant payloads to provide communications services. That said, some trials to date have apparently been quite successful.

All those existing UAVs are huge, flimsy, flex-wing aircraft that take an inordinate amount of care to handle in the difficult phases of take-off and landing. Airbus’ second prototype crashed in Australia in October 2019, and several other companies’ earlier prototypes have crumpled somewhat when they inadvertently contacted the ground.

Now enter Skydweller. Skydweller is designed to carry a relatively large payload and fly persistently in the stratosphere.

Photo: Skydweller

Skydweller prototype pseudosatellite UAV. (Photo: Skydweller)

The payload includes one or more communications relays: 4G/5G cellular, day/night full-motion video, satellite communication, and imaging radar. This looks like it could be one capable vehicle. The makers hope to capture business in commercial and government telecommunication, geospatial, meteorological and emergency operations. Skydweller has apparently been around since 2017 and has a lot of capability, so let’s see how they do with their new venture in Oklahoma.

If you were wondering where this technology came from, it is today’s carry-over of the famous around-the-world flight by the Solar Impulse aircraft from 2016, which circled the globe without fuel, using electrical power generated by solar cells on its wings.

GA Makes Improvements with Reaper

In another life, I was quite attuned to what it took to “automatically” land a passenger jet, so a recent release from General Atomics (GA) about improving the auto-landing system on Reapers (new-generation Predators) caught my eye. GA has a U.S. Air Force contract to update these unmanned reconnaissance/attack drones with the latest and greatest, so making a working system better is one of those improvements.

Actually, GA made three changes. The first enables the drone to divert to an alternate landing zone if the planned landing area is compromised — another word to express the possibility that hostile action or weather forced home base to send the vehicle elsewhere. Quite clever, in that the alternate site might not have a ground control station, along with someone who can fly the aircraft.

MQ-9A Reaper drone, (Photo: USAF)

MQ-9A Reaper drone, (Photo: USAF)

The ground pilot at home base has to either enter coordinates for the new alternate landing zone and the aircraft flies there and lands itself, or he needs to overfly the landing zone so that the Reaper can collect its own waypoint with which it can automatically align and land.

The second improvement has increased the speed limit of the cross wind in which the drone can land

The third enhancement allows the drone to land heavier than previously — both essential elements of being able to divert in an emergency, when weather may be poor and the aircraft could be carrying unused ordnance and fuel.

All this is a far cry from landing civilian air transports with GPS-based guidance, which is much more restrictive and with a whole mess of mathematical probabilities of the unlikeliness/likeliness of failure. Not so much for a Reaper drone on a mission during a “time of unrest.”

Home Deliveries in India

For those of you eagerly waiting for Amazon to start speedy deliveries of your online orders by drone, or Grubhub to drop in with an order of curry in a package dangling from a friendly unmanned air vehicle in your yard, there may be hope… especially if you live in India.

Following our earlier report of anticipated food deliveries by drone in India, more trials are leading to regulations and control systems. Altitude Angel from the United Kingdom has teamed with Indian Sagar Defence Engineering for a series of beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) drone trials.

Altitude Angel’s GuardianUTM platform will be used to monitor and control these flights through real-life scenarios. Scenarios include medical and cargo transport, surveillance operations, survey and mapping, and search-and-rescue operations. Sagar will operate the cargo carrying drones; feedback from the GuardianUTM system will enable the BVLOS flights.

While the Indian government has begun to grant permission for some commercial UAV undertakings, the intent is apparently to use the output from the Sagar/Altitude Angel BVLOS trials, taking place August through October, to help develop regulations for safe operation of drones over increasingly longer distances in Indian airspace.

To sum up, intellectual property from an around-the-world photo-voltaic airplane may become a substitute for low-cost satellite TV and Wi-Fi, while auto-land is old hat for a Predator cousin and the Air Force has gained even greater landing flexibility for a principle recon/attack drone.

Finally, we can expect at least one continent to get to regulations that allow drone deliveries to become a reality at last. As usual, there is a lot cooking in drone-land….

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).