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UAV update: MIL-SPEC drones lost, but progress for pseudo-satellites

August 21, 2019  - By
Image: GPS World

Some ups and downs for unmanned aircraft this month — good news that there is further progress on the pseudo-satellite front, but we also have MIL-SPEC drones lost to shoot-downs and recent crash landings. Amazon continues to advance toward deliveries really soon after orders, and another police department takes up drone use for aerial observation.

High-Altitude Pseudo-Satellite UAS

HAPSMobile (Softbank 95% and AeroVironment 5% JV) is funding further development and testing of the Hawk30 family of high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) solar-powered unmanned aircraft, with the expectation of long-duration flights above 65,000 feet — “a super cell-tower up in the stratosphere…providing connectivity for everybody that needs it,” according to AeroVironment President and CEO Wahid Nawabi.

HAPSMobile is collaborating with the Pan-Pacific UAS Test Range Complex (PPUTRC), which is managed by the University of Alaska (UA) Fairbanks, and with the University of Hawaii (UH) to conduct stratospheric test flights using the HAWK30 prototype HAPS vehicle. On behalf of this group, UA was recently granted a Certificate of Authorization by the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly HAWK30 as a stratospheric telecommunications platform system over the Hawaiian island of Lanai.

The HAPSMobile team will prep test flights at Lanai during 2019, conducting safety verifications and working with island authorities to comply with local regulations. During the program, HAPSMobile will also explore contributions to environmental conservation and to agriculture. Hawaii — not a bad place to run test flights, you might say…

Predator UAV downed

Following the shooting down of a U.S. Global Hawk (really expensive) and one or two Iranian drones (not very expensive) in the Gulf of Hormuz, U.S. forces on Aug. 13 just crash-landed an MQ-1C Grey Eagle (Predator UAV family) southwest of Baghdad on farmland in the town of Radwaniyah. The following pictures were released by a local news group:

The aircraft doesn’t appear to be too badly damaged, and seems to have been deliberately brought to rest in soft undergrowth on the edge of a field. So crash-landing might be an overstatement — rather an unplanned landing, perhaps? Then again, the landing gear appears to be significantly bent out of shape, so the U.S. Army 52178 drone’s contact with the ground might have been heavier than normal.

The news source indicated that the drone might have been brought down by “electronic interference or have been intercepted by a cyber-attack.” perhaps references to potential jamming of some kind? Nevertheless, the aircraft landed safely and was then recovered by Iraqi Security Forces. There were no injuries or damage to property.

The U.S. Army MQ-1C Gray Eagle provides both combat and intelligence forces with a long-endurance, armed, unmanned aircraft system (UAS) with significant range, altitude and payload flexibility.

And another report hit the internet today that back in June, a £6 million U.K. Watchkeeper WK050 drone on a training flight met a somewhat messy end after overshooting its landing and coming to rest in a tree. But the report also mentions that there was some indication of possible operator error.

Amazon Drone Deliveries?

Fresh on the heels of Fed Ex deciding to dump Amazon as a customer because they would appear to be developing a competing delivery infrastructure, Amazon is proposing a semi-autonomous drone that could automate short-distance deliveries.

In a recent letter to the FAA, Amazon is proposing trials in “sparsely populated” regions of the U.S. using its latest 88lb MK-27 Prime Air delivery drone. The UAV apparently has well-developed sense-and-avoid for the flight phase and uses optical capability for the delivery phase.

If obstacles were to be detected in flight (other UAVs, low-flying manned aircraft, helicopters or birds) the MK-27 would avoid and fly round each obstacle. If an obstacle were detected during delivery (maybe the customer waving frantically to stay out of the cabbage patch) the delivery may be aborted and the drone would return to base. But would it automatically dispense one of those “We-called-while-you-were-out” postcards, fluttering down into the backyard so you could go pick up your package later?

Seriously, though… The initial trials would be managed by an operator who can command a return to base if the drone gets into any trouble, but Amazon claims that the fail-safe autonomy built into the MK-27 will make this unlikely. The hardware and software have gone through extensive simulated testing, and the drone has already completed more than 10,000 simulated delivery flights into representative backyards.

Amazon’s objective seems to be to eventually deliver packages within 30 minutes after the customer places an order — to Prime customers within ~8.5 miles from an Amazon fulfillment center.

Growing Police Use of Drones

The Oneida County, New York, Sheriff’s Office just announced that it is are now drone-trained and drone-equipped — with five certificated operators and a fleet of eight DJI Mavic drones for indoor and outdoor use.

The DJI drones will not be modified and will be used as is. The Mavic 2 drones will provide all manner of aerial surveillance including flood and disaster monitoring. In addition, active shooter investigations and the like could involve initial indoor surveillance using Mavic Air drone(s) to provide armed police with situational awareness before any take-down efforts. Accident investigations, location of missing persons, house fires, and rescue efforts are other applications for the drones.

The Sherriff’s department has been preparing for drone use for two years — five officers have already completed FAA-certified drone training, and others are expected to undertake training over time.


We have potential stratospheric “cell towers” being tested over Hawaii, landing accidents, preparations for potential rapid deliveries by Amazon drones, and another police department launching a drone unit. These are some of the expanding uses for drones, and the unfortunate reality that drones can sometimes get into operational difficulties.

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).

1 Comment on "UAV update: MIL-SPEC drones lost, but progress for pseudo-satellites"

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  1. STEVEN ALONSO says:

    So how does Amazon’s delivery system “see and avoid” power lines, telephone lines, guy wires and other small obstructions? It’s a common problem for low altitude manned aircraft. This will be just as great as my Fed Ex deliveries – left in the yard to get soaked by a puddle and rain.