UAVs take flight for food deliveries, runway inspections, more

November 20, 2019  - By

A lot has happened in the world of unmanned aircraft over the last several weeks, and this month we’ve captured a cross-section of news that illustrates the variety of applications and goings-on across the industry. These include:

  • drone delivery to a nuclear submarine,
  • Uber Eats launching a new delivery drone,
  • a new heavy-lift UAV,
  • Chinese DJI drone use banned by the U.S. interior department,
  • the Grand Sky facility in North Dakota demonstrating control of a NASA Global Hawk over California,
  • runway inspection using drones at an airport in Canada, and
  • a drone-of-sorts completing 780 days in orbit.
Package delivery to USS Hawaii (Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro)

Package delivery to USS Hawaii (Photo: U.S. Navy/Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class Michael B. Zingaro)

Submarine delivery. The University of Hawaii and the U.S. Navy recently tested out a new way to supply an operational nuclear sub with a few essential items while the Virginia-class fast-attack submarine USS Hawaii was off the West coast of Oahu. A five-pound package of circuit cards, medical supplies and food too – which someone surely must have snuck in — was delivered using a Skyfront Perimeter gas-powered hybrid drone. The UAV has five-hour endurance, easily flying just one mile out to sea and back to complete the test delivery on Oct 10.

The package was lowered on a cable from the Perimeter drone and captured by a ‘snag’ pole extended off the sail of the submarine. This timely small package delivery to an underway sub has apparently led to the creation of the submarine force’s first UAV squadron in the Pacific, according to the Navy.

Uber Eats. Uber Eats has been testing food deliveries from McDonald’s near San Diego State University, and has just announced a new 6-rotor vertical take-off delivery drone it plans to use for more test deliveries next year in San Diego.

Uber Elevate delivery drone (Photo: Uber)

Uber Elevate delivery drone (Photo: Uber)

The ideal delivery profile for this drone is a meal for two picked up from a restaurant six miles away from dispatch in eight minutes, another six miles to make the delivery and then six miles to return to base — maybe less than 20-30 minutes all told. However, they have an intermediate drop-off to a ground-based delivery driver who then travels to the customer’s door to actually deliver the food. This process contrasts with Amazon’s approach — they are planning to lower packages on a cable directly to the customer – but food delivery might actually need a guy in a truck knocking on your door with hot food.

Heavy-lift drone. The Heavy-Lift VoloDrone, manufactured by Volocopter in Germany, flew for the first time in October. Targeted at the logistics sector, its anticipated that the large UAV may also find applications in agriculture, and other operations where a large – up to 440 pounds – payload is required. Velocopter has so far focused on unmanned air-taxi transports, but the larger scale involved in people transport appears to have spun off into a heavy-lift derivative UAV.

Christoph Hommet, chief engineer, with the heavy-lift VoloDrone. (Photo: Volocopter)

Christoph Hommet, chief engineer, with the heavy-lift VoloDrone. (Photo: Volocopter)

The VoloDrone is a powerful, fully electric, heavy-lift utility drone which is anticipated to have a range of up to 25 miles carrying a 440-pound payload. The rotor area has a diameter of 30 feet and the vehicle is 7.5 feet high. It can be remotely piloted or can fly autonomously on pre-set routes.

Loads can be carried between the legs of the landing gear on standard rack mounts or slung below, or a tank and sprayer could be fitted for agricultural applications. The 18 rotor multicopter platform uses swappable lithium-ion batteries and an in-house flight control system, and benefits from existing development and test of the air-taxi Velocopter.

Anywhere ground transportation or construction operations are challenged by difficult access, the VoloDrone might assist by providing an airborne option. It is designed as a universal air-lift vehicle which may be adapted to different use cases by the addition of special-purpose accessories.

Examples of VoloDrone load configurations. (Photo: Volocopter)

Examples of VoloDrone load configurations. (Photo: Volocopter)

DJI drones barred. The U.S .Interior Dept. (DoI) has barred the use of DJI dones, except for emergency purposes. With a combined department fleet of over 800 drones, around 15% are supplied by Chinese manufacturer DJI.

Amid the on-going trade war between China and the U.S., members of Congress have grown increasingly concerned about American use of Chinese technology – whether DJI drones, or Huawei networking equipment. Recently Congress has proposed the American Drone Security Act to limit Government agencies’ use of Chinese equipment.

In anticipation of this issue DoI has already been working with DJI for over 15 months to identify possible security gaps in drone design, and DJI has come up with a “Government Edition” software load which ensures data is only gathered and stored on-board the drone and is isolated and downloaded for only DoI use after each flight — data transmission has been eliminated as a possible source of data leakage. DJI even volunteered to partial manufacture in the US. Therefore, DoI had previously resisted Congressional pressure to discontinue use of its fleet of DJI drones.

Nevertheless, DoI Secretary Bernhardt has ordered that Chinese drone use be now discontinued until an internal review is completed. In the meantime, DJI drones may only be operated by DoI for emergency purposes, “such as fighting wildfires, search and rescue, and dealing with natural disasters that may threaten life or property.”

NASA Global Hawk UAV (Photo: NASA/Tom Miller)

NASA Global Hawk UAV (Photo: NASA/Tom Miller)

Large BVLOS drones. The Grand Sky Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) facility in North Dakota has become an operational base for large UAVs, including the General Atomics’ Predator and Northrup Grumman’s (NG) Global Hawk. The Grand Sky facility is immediately adjacent to Grand Forks Air Force Base, where the RQ-4 Global Hawk high altitude, long endurance autonomous aircraft is based.

In order to offer full operational capability to its intended customer base at Grand Sky, Northrup Grumman is building a hangar and has also established a Transportable Operations Center (TOC) in its Grand Sky Mission Control Center. It was through this TOC on October 10th that NG was able to take control of an in flight Global Hawk mission in California.

A NASA crew in California had managed the take off and flight of their Global Hawk from the NASA Armstrong Flight Research Center (AFRC) on Oct. 10, 2019. During the mission, the flight team at Grand Sky took over control of the aircraft and executed a series of flight maneuvers to demonstrate the operational capability of the TOC. This capability is key for the Grand Sky facility to become fully operational.

A Microdrone md4-1000 used in the surveys at EIA. (credit: EIA)

A Microdrone md4-1000 used in the surveys at EIA. (credit: EIA)

Runway inspection. Drones are never allowed to operate anywhere near an active airport, so it’s something of a switch to learn that the Edmonton International Airport (EIA) in Alberta, Canada , OK with operating a drone within the confines of the airport. Fortunately it’s a case of improving the safe operation and maintenance of the extensive runway infrastructure at the airport.

EIA has two million square feet of runways, taxiways and aircraft handling aprons which are all subject to wear by aircraft and suffer from the harsh weather extremes which are common in Canada. Therefore regular maintenance inspections are mandatory. Undertaking inspections manually in the past could take days to perform, so EIA adopted the use of drones to complete inspections much quicker and with higher accuracy.

The Microdrone md4-1000 drone is flown by Canadian company AERIUM to collect Lidar (Light Detection and Ranging) data and photographic/video imagery of EIA’s runways. The data collected is used to more accurately predict when to conduct preventative maintenance on ground infrastructure used by aircraft. Drone operations were approved by Edmonton Airport in collaboration with Nav Canada and AERIUM. EIA has previously flown a drone to minimize the number of birds on the airport during aircraft movements and in the process conducted the first-ever drone night flight at the airport.

A X-37B lands at the Kennedy Space Center. (Photo: USAF)

A X-37B lands at the Kennedy Space Center. (Photo: USAF)

X-37B orbital vehicle. Finally, the daddy-of-all applications for remotely piloted vehicles became more apparent on Oct. 27, at 3:51 in the morning when the U.S. Air Force’s X-37B Orbital Test Vehicle successfully landed at NASA’s Kennedy Space Center Shuttle Landing Facility after 780 days on orbit.

The fifth mission was launched on Sept. 7, 2017 from Cape Canaveral Air Force Station, Florida by a SpaceX Falcon 9 booster. Looking like a miniature version of one of the retired Space Shuttle fleet, the X-37B is managed by the Air Force Rapid Capabilities Office, and ‘performs risk reduction, experimentation and concept of operations development for reusable space vehicle technologies.’ Long endurance stuff – the previous flight lasted 718 days. “This mission successfully hosted Air Force Research Laboratory experiments, among others, as well as providing a ride for small satellites,” said an Air Force spokesman.

The X37B provides a unique capability to test new systems in space and return them to Earth and enables the U.S. to more efficiently, effectively and rapidly develop evolving space capabilities. The U.S. Air Force is preparing to launch the sixth X-37B mission in 2020.

Final thoughts. As drones chug steadily along the path towards a rapid airborne delivery system, urgent deliveries to both submarines and hungry people ordering food are making progress. Heavy-Lift capability is evolving out of air-taxi research. The effects of trade wars and security concerns are touching established drone operations. We can now control huge aircraft remotely from almost anywhere. Runway inspection is being automated just like any other drone inspection/surveillance mission, and remote space operations are now regular practice.

It’s an expanding world of applications for drones, with many more different and perhaps unanticipated ones yet to come.

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