Unmanned aircraft update - GPS World

Unmanned aircraft update

March 20, 2024  - By

Why was there a mix up in Tallahassee, Florida while trying to legislate for eVTOL air taxis and vertiports? Is China catching up on low-observable surveillance drones? And there’s news of an improved indoor UAV inspection system. This all appears to be happening in UAV-land this month.

Not sure what’s cooking in my home State of Florida on approval of anticipated vertiports for use by eVTOL (electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing) and existing helicopter-type aircraft. Florida Department of Transportation (FDOT) published the findings of a state-formed aviation group in 2023 which appear to be pretty reasonable recommendations to ease approval of future vertiports – something seen as a major step forward for the introduction of eVTOL air-taxis in Florida. The Florida House passed Bill HB 981, which incorporated the FDOT findings and sent it to the Florida Senate for approval.

Now, Senator Gayle Harrell has introduced an amendment to the bill for review by the Florida Senate, which seemingly adds unwanted restrictions. So, the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) released an article criticizing the Senator’s proposed legislation as presenting additional hurdles for eVTOL introduction. AUVSI’s concerns with the Senate version focus on restrictive zoning language, which the Senator’s version has included as follows:

“Ensure that a political subdivision of the state does not exercise its zoning and land use authority to grant or permit an exclusive right to one or more vertiport owners or operators and authorize a political subdivision to use its authority to promote reasonable access to advanced air mobility operators at public use vertiports within the jurisdiction of the subdivision.”

In addition to the AUVSI article, an Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) coalition of key industry leaders — including AUVSI and BETA, Eve, Ferrovial, Joby, Lilium, Vertical, and Skyports Infrastructure — sent a letter with critical comments directly to Florida House leaders. AUVSI has been and continues to be supportive of Florida DOT’s AAM plan and recommendations, and has supported the House version of legislation.

AUVSI believes Senator Harrell’s version would have created uncertainty and provided anti-AAM voices with a powerful tool to delay vertiport construction through drawn-out litigation. This language was widely viewed as problematic by both industry and lawmakers with whom AUVSI has collaborated during Florida’s state session.

Fortunately, on March 7th the Florida House refused to concur with the Senate’s amendment. Now, however, the bill appears to be stalled and the Florida Legislature has packed up and gone on vacation for the summer.

As things have progressed, we initially had the B2 ‘Spirit’ Strategic Stealth Bomber, a world first for the USAF and Northrup Grumman who built and fielded the secret, 172 ft wingspan, ‘radar-invisible’, tailless, long-range, defense-penetrating aircraft that has become a legend in its own right. Introduced in 1988, only 21 were produced.

Then we had the 66ft wingspan RQ-170 ‘Wraith’ Stealth-UAV built by Lockheed Martin for USAF/CIA and introduced in 2007.  Used in a reconnaissance role, some have hinted that it may have replaced the U-2 spy plane in some roles – nevertheless, it’s a big drone that could imply long-range, high-altitude snooping.

So now enters the Chinese ‘Sky Hawk’, a jet-powered, low-observable drone with only a 23 ft wingspan; which has an uncanny resemblance to both the B2 Spirit and more so the RQ-170 Wraith.

We are told that the design of this UAV has recently undergone significant ‘enhancements’ and that flight testing of the variant has begun. Although smaller than the US RQ-170, the design is intended to enable ‘stealthy’ overflights of other territories. One of the recent additions is a V/UHF communications capability and the potential that brings for in-flight collaboration with fighter aircraft (aka US Loyal Wingman program) and autonomous operations once instructed.

Inspecting areas inside operational facilities can lead to major difficulties for first-hand physical access by maintenance/inspection personnel. Flyability in France has developed a drone that can operate inside a spherical cage encasing the whole vehicle, while still being able to receive radio commands and transmit video and data. Elios 3 is the latest product, which has been used in numerous successful inspection missions and has collected video to verify detailed machine and plant status.

Now a critical area of verification which has been especially difficult to obtain has been added, which enables the measurement of object thickness using Ultrasonic sensing. The Ultrasonic Testing (UT) that the new probe makes possible allows thickness measurement of building walls, pipe walls, corrosion build-up, beams and a whole slew of previously unmeasurable, hidden features that may have gone without full inspection in the past.

Customers of Flyability’s inspection drone in the oil, gas, chemical, and maritime industries have encouraged the addition of thickness measurement for some time, so Flyability hooked up with Cygnus Instruments to develop the UT measurement probe which has now been successfully ‘grafted’ into the Elios 3 drone.

The Flyability drone can enter and explore closed/confined spaces that were previously dangerous and were perhaps almost impossible for people to physically inspect, so the addition of UT capability greatly enhances an already good thing!

So, efforts by Florida to quickly adapt to the coming age of eVTOL, and to Vertiports which will allow people to gain access to air taxis, seems to have come into some sort of conflict with AUVSI – the very proponent for this mode of UAV transportation. We’ll have to see how this is resolved, as it surely will be.

Technology catch-up by the Chinese developer of the Sky Hawk low-observability drone appears to be something to keep an eye on for a while. And meanwhile, new options for an autonomous indoor drone may be something the maintenance/inspection industry has been seeking for some time.

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).