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UAVs on the rise: Flying cars, medical deliveries, fighter support

May 20, 2020  - By
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A Loyal Wingman drone rolls out, the U.S. Air Force (USAF) sponsors air taxi-cargo UAS development, and medical deliveries take place in Scotland and Florida — we have quite a wide selection for this month’s news.

Fighter support drone

Boeing Loyal Wingman prototype (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing Loyal Wingman prototype (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing Australia has just rolled out the first “Loyal Wingman” for the RAAF (Royal Australian Air Force) — in essence what looks like a completed first article of three prototypes on order for Australia’s Loyal Wingman Advanced Development Program.

The concept is to develop an “inexpensive, expendable” UAV which will fight alongside today’s frontline fighter aircraft, controlled from the ground or from the air. A “force-multiplier” which doesn’t risk either pilot or the heap-expensive interceptor/ground attack aircraft themselves, a real bonus for smaller air-forces, and a less costly way of increasing numbers.

The first prototype will now go into a ground and flight test program to prove out systems and flight capabilities – first flight would likely be later this year.

A team of 35 Australian aerospace companies are supporting the Loyal Wingman project, including BAE Systems Australia which has been selected to supply the flight vehicle management system, flight control computers and navigation equipment.

Flying cars?

The U.S. Air Force wants a fleet of them by 2023!

So in a novel way to stir interest in the concept of flying cars, or perhaps cargo carrying drones, the Air Force launched a program known as “Agility Prime.” The program may have begun conventionally with seed contract(s) to drone manufacturers, but their latest “webcast” approach provided an extensive overview of what this could mean to the U.S. industry.

From April 27 through May 1, a panel including Air Force leaders, two U.S. Senators, NASA and Federal Aviation Administration management, and key Air Force and Defense Department players participated in an open presentation to industry, investment and State Government participants — all with the aim of accelerating civilian development of “advanced air mobility vehicles.”

Recognizing that a principle problem is overcoming regulatory hurdles, USAF intends to provide a route to commercial revenue service such as logistics transport and disaster recovery by perhaps providing access to its key testing capabilities and facilities. With broad participation in the program by industry, government and investors (i.e. USAF don’t intend to pay for it all) the program would satisfy an operational safety and security baseline and provide a platform for the “Race to Certification” of commercial drone product(s) the USAF might also want to buy.

One of the possible solutions for a cargo drone already funded includes the Sabrewing Cargo Drone – known currently as Rhaegal-A.

Four electric powered ducted fans rotate for Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) and are powered by a Safran (French) Ardiden 3 helicopter turbine engine – giving this large UAV a design speed of 245 mph, a ceiling of 20,000 feet and range of 1000 miles.

Sabrewing has received $3.25m under a two year USAF sponsored Small Business Incentive Research (SBIR) project in the hope that the design could be eventually adapted to military logistics applications. The vehicle is intended to be able to fly autonomously, has detect and avoid capability, and can even operate when GPS is continuously jammed — something the military would probably appreciate. Potential casualty evacuation is also of great interest.

Medical supplies delivery

Meanwhile in the U.K., in cooperation with the U.K. Civil Aviation Authority (CAA), Skyports drone company is playing in the CAA’s “Sandbox.” This is another term for an umbrella/sequence of trials under CAA safety and security constraints where innovative approaches are given a chance to demonstrate that new aviation related things are possible, that they actually work and that they meet the CAA criteria. Skyports wants to test out Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations for its upcoming trial of medical deliveries between Oban and Mull off the West Coast of Scotland.

As front-line health professionals fight to beat the COVID-19 pandemic, deliveries of essential medical supplies between medical facilities can be speeded-up significantly using drones. Skyports will begin the week-long trial between Mull and Oban medical centers in the last week of May.

The planned BVLOS flights will be over a 17-mile route in unrestricted airspace and avoid the Oban airport, crossing the narrow sea channel and onto the North coast of the Isle of Mull. Skyports already has experience transporting medical and other high-value cargo in other parts of the world. The candidate drone is equipped with Iris Automation Casia detect-and-avoid computer vision system, and Thales Remote ID, and the Skyports drone team is also supported by Thales SOARIZON flight management and mission planning system.

Drones to deliver prescriptions

And finally, something quite helpful during the current coronavirus pandemic — CVS and UPS having linked up some time ago, are to begin delivering prescription medication to customers in Florida. The process has been previously checked out during November last year trials in Cary, N.C.

UPS will use the Swiss Matternet M2 delivery drone, picking up medication at specific CVS location(s) and flying it to a delivery point at “The Villages” in Central Florida, then the “last-mile” delivery is by road — presumably by an outfit which knows the layout of this huge facility where something like 130,000 retirees live. Useful during this phase of Florida’s self-quarantine for elders who may find it difficult to get out to the drug store. Hope they start running the same service out of my local CVS.

Wrap-up

So from the extreme military application of drone support for fighter attack missions, and USAF sponsored development of air-taxis and cargo drones, through to medical supply deliveries by drone in remote areas of Scotland and prescription deliveries in Florida — activity never seems to abate in this growing industry.

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