Unmanned systems updates

June 19, 2024  - By

Some people may have anticipated that the unmanned aircraft industry, amid initial exuberance over the new technology and the impact it has made, would eventually suffer some sort of implosion. Nevertheless, while some smaller players have come and gone, by and large new companies are still sprouting, and other start-ups may have been absorbed by bigger fish with more resources.

DroneDeploy acquired a couple of software image acquisition and robotics companies in recent years – both StructionSite (2022 acquisition, San Francisco) and Rocus (2021 acquisition, New Zealand) are now part of DroneDeploy, widening their jointly addressable markets.

Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is in the process of merging with Volatus to bring a combined service and equipment capability to market. Both companies are currently listed on the Toronto Stock Exchange and will trade under DDC’s stock symbol “FLT” following the completion of the merger, anticipated by the end of Q3 2024. DDC provides a unique Condor cargo UAV capability, remote operations center, cargo infrastructure and operations software, while Volatus provides UAV services, training and equipment sales to enable a path to market for the combined company.

Condor UAVs can carry approximately 400lb of cargo. (Photo: DDC)

Condor UAVs can carry approximately 400lb of cargo. (Photo: DDC)

Joby has been a leading participant in the emerging eVTOL air-taxi market segment, and acquired radar developer Inras GmbH in Linz, Austria in December 2021. The small Inras team brought advanced radar technology to Joby’s eVTOL development to provide onboard sensing and navigation.

Now Joby has also acquired the autonomy division of Xwing, which brings, according to the Joby website, “autonomy, including vision system processing, detect and avoid algorithms, mission management and decision making, ground control stations, remote operations and also the integration of Artificial Intelligence (AI) and machine learning algorithms.”

Joby’s two flying pre-production eVTOL aircraft (Photo: Joby)

Joby’s two flying pre-production eVTOL aircraft (Photo: Joby)

The Xwing Superpilot software has previously enabled autonomous ‘gate-to-gate’ flight, 250 self-contained flights and 500 auto-landings with a Cessna 208B Grand Caravan for demonstration/tests. This system resulted in an official project designation for the certification of a large unmanned aircraft system (UAS) by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in April 2023, and an Air Force Military Flight Release in 2024. Joby expects the acquisition to not only further long-term autonomous civilian capability — initial FAA certification is anticipated with piloted aircraft — but also to support existing and future business with the United States Department of Defense (DOD).

Meanwhile, Airbus is taking a similar approach by teaming with Helsing in Europe to integrate AI into a future Airbus unmanned Wingman concept aircraft — a UAV designed to fly with and be controlled by front-line manned fighter aircraft. Alongside growing European force requirements, Airbus envisages a lower-cost, attributable, UAV commanded by manned aircraft that could dispatch the Wingman for target reconnaissance and destruction or electronic jamming and deception of enemy air defense systems.

Airbus and Helsing CEOs with Wingman model.(Photo: Airbus)

Airbus and Helsing CEOs with Wingman model.(Photo: Airbus)

Both Joby and its rival Archer have also received FAA Part 135 certification, which allows them both to run an air-taxi operation. Neither has yet obtained FAA authorization for their eVTOL aircraft, but both appear to have a clear mandate from the FAA for the steps necessary for those certifications. Both intend to operate existing certified fixed-wing aircraft as air taxis in the meantime under the Part 135 authorization.

While browsing through the FAA’s Special Class Airworthiness Criteria for the Joby Aero Model JAS4-1 Powered-Lift, published on the Federal Register, I learned that the task to certify a brand-new category of aircraft is huge — not big, absolutely gigantic.

FAA put together a draft of proposed cert criteria and put it out for comments to interested government agencies and industry — a whole slew of comments were received, which the FAA reviewed. The FAA incorporated some and discarded others. Just the response to these comments goes on for many pages — there were a lot of comments. Nevertheless, just skimming through FAA’s responses to these comments was a significant undertaking, never mind reviewing and understanding the basic requirements for, say, the two-performance option. Imagine what eVTOL operators have to go through to demonstrate that they meet the steps to achieve FAA certification.

The cert basis for Joby appears to be a combination of fixed wing and helicopter requirements, plus more to address the novel electrical propulsion system and the batteries that provide its power. Two levels of performance standards are set out — an “essential” level and an “increased” level. The 42 organizations that commented on the draft requirements included worldwide aviation agencies, eVTOL and aircraft companies, industry associations and major components suppliers, the Association for Uncrewed Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) and some individuals — a huge group of involved and impacted organizations.

Joby applied to the FAA in November 2018 for certification of its Model JAS4-1 powered-lift eVTOL. Joby has been supporting just the activity related to certification for six years to date. All the other eVTOL developers are at a very similar stage as they try to get their aircraft into service carrying people and generating income.

Most eVTOL developers have major sponsors familiar with the certification process. Otherwise, the effort would just be too costly, never mind the cost of proving the capability to operating customers, the country as a whole and capturing the imagination of intended users. Plus, of course, building and qualifying the test vehicles, and the operational infrastructure to allow these eVTOLs to land, pick up customers and fly them to somewhere near their destination. The length of time to do this over so many years has broken many unwitting start-up companies. Achieving this goal can be incredibly difficult without the substantial financial resources of major companies such as Airbus, Boeing, or major airlines.

Moving from UAV to passenger airplane is something not to be taken lightly. As a potential future passenger, just keep waiting for your first flight in an operational certified eVTOL. Several of the contenders have targeted 2026, but who knows? I wish them the best of fortune and they’ll need it!

This article is tagged with , , and posted in Featured Stories, Latest News, Opinions, UAV/UGV

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).