UAVs, walking robots and an autonomous tugboat

October 18, 2021  - By

In a slight expansion from our previous monthly UAV newsletter columns, we’re now looking at autonomous systems with a wider outlook, capturing the automated world as it evolves.

The Eve air taxi. (Image: EmbraerX)

The Eve air taxi. (Image: EmbraerX)

News this month covers steps toward air taxi qualification, highly challenging underground UAV and robotic capers, and long-distance watercraft autonomy in Denmark.

EVE gets order boost by Bristow

We’ll soon be seeing them — electric powered manned and unmanned flying taxis buzzing in the city skies above us. Embraer, the Brazilian commuter aircraft manufacturer (you might have taken their EMB-1xx series turboprop aircraft on short hauls between city centers) has apparently progressed its Eve manned/unmanned aircraft development to the stage of a program for qualification/certification being scoped by EmbraerX in Florida and the Bristow Group.

Parent company Embraer established EmbraerX in Melbourne, Florida, as a new-concept UAV developer and manufacturer, launching the Eve urban mobility vehicle as its first product.

Eve subscale demonstrator. (Photo: EmbraerX)

Eve subscale demonstrator. (Photo: EmbraerX)

Although we are still only seeing concept-artist renderings of the Eve eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft, and photographs of a small-scale flying prototype, Embraer has already built an impressive order book. There are reports of more than 500 orders on hand, originally led by Uber and recently joined by the Bristow Group with an order for 100. All orders are likely contingent on aviation agency approval of the aircraft for public transportation.

Based worldwide, Bristow has been around in one form or another since 1955, and currently operates more than 250 helicopters in support of the oil and gas industry, search and rescue (SAR), and various military-related applications, including unmanned aircraft operations with the U.S. Coast Guard. This experience is expected to aid EmbraerX through a joint program to eventually gain an operating certificate for the Eve air taxi.

An Elios drone from team CERBERUS roams a moulin in an earlier challenge. (Photo: DARPA)

An Elios drone from team CERBERUS roams a moulin in an earlier challenge. (Photo: DARPA)

DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge

The U.S. Army’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been running a competition since 2018 to find unmanned products and technologies that can find their way around underground environments such as subway systems, sewers, mines and naturally occurring caves and tunnels. The object is to rapidly and remotely map, navigate and search these complex underground locations.

Known as DARPA’s Subterranean Challenge, several groups of competitors were slimmed down to three very capable teams over several months through some initial selection evaluations. Then, on final competition day, teams CSIRO Data61, CERBERUS and MARBLE went at it in an array of challenging environments at the Louisville Mega Cavern — a massive retired limestone mine so large it not only hosts a ropes course and a mountain bike park, but also has tram-guided tours for visitors.

Finalists in the competition had to navigate through elements from previous events, including simulated underground mines, a metropolitan infrastructure, and cave systems. Smoke was even used in places to increase the confusion.

Team CERBERUS — an international consortium that included the University of Nevada Reno (UNR), ETH Zurich, the Norwegian University of Science and Technology (NTNU), the University of California Berkeley, the University of Oxford, Flyability, and the Sierra Nevada Corporation — was ultimately successful.

The ANYmal climbs stairs. (photo: ANYbotics)

The ANYmal climbs stairs. (Photo: ANYbotics)

In previous phases of the competition, Flyability used its caged Elios 2 UAV with video and thermal cameras and a high-intensity LED lighting system to create accurate internal maps of underground spaces. However, in the final competition, ANYbotics four-legged ANYmal C autonomous robots were primarily employed — carrying visual and thermal cameras, lidar and a spotlight.

In the final competition, Team CERBERUS managed to locate and identify 23 of 40 hidden “artifacts” in the allocated time and earned the $2 million DARPA first-place prize.

Autonomous Tugboat round Denmark

Sea Machines in Boston has been around since 2015, focusing on automating shipping control and monitoring. It hopes to bring a system to market that will enable an autonomous voyage all the way around Denmark.

With investors who include Toyota Ventures, Huntington Ingalls, Brunswick Corporation, Accomplice and Dolby Fund, the company is not a mega-million venture, but has still successfully engaged the likes of A.P. Moller-Maersk, the U.S. Department of Transportation and the U.S. Navy in autonomous waterborne projects.

The tugboat Nellie Bly on its 1,000 nm circumnavigation of Denmark will use an SM300 autonomous system that uses radar, inertial navigation, a depth transducer, the automatic identification system (AIS) and video cameras for obstacle avoidance. It will provide high-definition remote situation awareness to monitoring controllers in Boston, 3,600 miles away.

Autonomous tugboat Nellie Bly. (Photo: Arie Boer)

Autonomous tugboat Nellie Bly. (Photo: Arie Boer)

Throughout the voyage, the Nellie Bly will have two professional pilots onboard, and will stop at ports along the way to demonstrate the technology. Sea Machines will stream the journey live on a website with updates from the ship, the crew and the command center, enabling real-time and recorded access to “The Machine Odyssey” as the project is now known.

To sum up, lots of autonomous projects are proceeding, with progress toward getting air taxis up and running for business, DARPA sponsoring technology for underground navigating, and mapping and long-distance autonomous navigation around Denmark — lots of diversity and opportunity.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

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).