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Unmanned taxis, solar-powered UAS in development

January 17, 2018  - By

This month’s highlights from the UAV industry include:

  • more on the potential for unmanned airborne taxis,
  • a drone recovery system aimed at satisfying FAA requirements for flying over people,
  • a temporary stumble for camera supplier GoPro as it withdraws from the UAS end-product business, and
  • a possible commercial re-emergence of the high-altitude, solar-powered drone.

Passenger drone tested in UK

Y6S passenger-carrying drone. (Photo: Autonomous Flight)

If a passenger-carrying drone could cost about the same as a regular passenger car, like those used by taxi and Uber drivers, then the economics might work. So it’s interesting that an outfit in the United Kingdom — Autonomous Flight — is talking about building passenger-carrying drones for around $25,000.

Autonomous Flight says has a prototype up and running, testing the concept in Southern England;  testing with passengers is expected to get underway this year. The YS6 is battery-powered with multiple redundant systems for safety and is designed to fly at 70 mph, with a range of 80 miles at 1,500 ft.

This happens to meet a design goal of covering a distance from Heathrow Airport to Charing Cross train station in 12 minutes, a journey that would normally take around an hour by car in London traffic. There are similar “hops” that could save a massive amount of time in almost every city in the world.

But don’t hold your breath. It could take more than five years to get regulatory approval for the vehicle and for the initial routes over cities — never mind the time needed to get this particular concept into large-scale production to achieve the target price. But it’s nevertheless a good sign with good prospects for the future.

Drone Recovery System

While the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) considers the regulations for drone flights over people, in the meantime several applications have been developed for people-overflight with drones equipped with parachutes.

Presumably, a drone would be safer if lowered by parachute in the event of equipment failure, but apparently such applications that rely on parachutes for risk mitigation have all been turned down by FAA. University of Alabama and Virginia Tech research has indicated a 70 percent chance of significant injury or death when a drone the size of an 8.85-pound DJI Inspire 2 fails and falls onto people.

Indemnis in Anchorage, Alaska, has been working with the FAA and other interested stakeholders to draft the regulatory standard for flight over people and has now gone on to develop its Nexus ballistic drone recovery system, which it plans to have on the market by next summer.

With a retail price of between $1,700 and $2,500, the system is expected to satisfy these coming FAA regulations for UAS flight over people and in urban areas for Part 107 commercial operations, but would seem to be quite expensive for smaller recreational drones.

The system is scalable for drones from eight pounds to “several thousand” pounds. The Nexus system is designed to automatically deploy within 30 milliseconds of detecting a failure on the drone or of entering unrecoverable flight, and the system is capable of determining normal flight or a failure to within six feet of vertical movement.

According to Indemnis, more than 10,000 requests for flight over people have been received by the FAA in the last 14 months, but all those that rely on parachutes for risk mitigation have been refused. This is apparently because conventional parachute systems have a tendency to become tangled with the aircraft or manual deployment is required. It is also said that current quadcopter drone safety systems — which cut power to an engine to prevent tumbling and which slow descent by adding power to the remaining engines — are inadequate for flying over people.

The Nexus system automatically detects failure, cuts engine power, and deploys an aircraft parachute within 30 milliseconds, slowing vertical speed to around 7 mph. This should be slow enough to allow the operator to catch up with the vehicle before it hits the ground. However, reducing vertical speed is only half the solution, as a vehicle under parachute will still travel horizontally due to wind velocity. So Indemnis is testing their parachute system with an airbag on a 33.29-pound DJI M600 drone. The airbag turns the drone “into a giant pillow” once the chute deploys.

The expected FAA standard is anticipated to require 45 tests in two failure modes — critical motor failure and full motor failure — at full flight speed, hover, and in automatic and manual deployment scenarios. Tests with a DJI Inspire 2 cutting one motor, two motors or four motors have pitched the drone violently just before it enters a slow roll — at 60 mph, it will roll quickly and violently.

This drone safety and recovery system is expected to be on the market within the next few years, following release of the projected FAA standards.

GoPro Karma hits the dust

In what would seem to be an unusual turn of events in a rapidly expanding market, GoPro has decided to exit the UAS vehicle business. GoPro cameras are still a favorite on a wide range of UAVs, but the company has chosen to get out of the business of making end-item unmanned vehicles, despite reaching second place in market share in 2017 for its price range.

At the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) Jan. 9-12 in Las Vegas, GoPro explained that its decision was based on inadequate returns versus the investment required to support their single-product UAS business.

However, Karma’s demise was apparently brought on not only by an expensive initial product recall, but also by the apparent additional financial pressure of poor Hero5 camera sales.

Nevertheless, GoPro still feels that the “action-camera” market has the legs to sustain growth, so it’s likely UAV manufacturers will not have to go looking for another reliable video camera source any time soon.

Joint venture for solar HALE UAS

The solar-powered Helios in flight.

In late 1990s/early 2000s, NASA contracted with AeroVironment to develop a high-altitude solar-powered UAS for NASA’s Environmental Research Aircraft and Sensor Technology, or ERAST, program.

In August 2001, the Helios prototype reached a world-record altitude of 96,863 ft., and in 2002 the Pathfinder Plus prototype provided from 65,000 feet high-definition television (HDTV) signals; third-generation (3G) mobile voice, video and data; and high-speed internet.

AeroVironment has now formed a joint venture with Japanese SoftBank Corporation to develop a solar-powered high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) UAS for commercial operations that may include applications such as high-altitude pseudo-satellites.

The joint venture — known as HAPSMobile — is a Japanese corporation in which AeroVironment holds minority ownership but is still able to directly exploit commercial and military opportunities outside Japan.


It’s encouraging to see another airborne taxi initiative joining the folks who were demonstrating prototypes in Dubai back last September. If the market is there, more entrants should help make this option a reality.

It’s also good news that a company already has a drone recovery system in the works that could reduce the potential for injury in the event one falls out of the sky. This might start to reverse adverse public opinion about drones and help the FAA move forward with regulations allowing wider usage.

Meanwhile, it’s sad but true that new industries inevitably see some entrants pull back and even leave in the early stages. It’s fortunate that popular drone camera supplier GoPro still has the ability to retrench and fall back on its existing business.

Finally, the promise of high-altitude solar-powered drones would seem to be still alive. If it could be possible to hang TV and other comms systems on these high-altitude loitering vehicles, there might be a much less expensive way of getting transmitters into very high altitude orbits without the cost of a space launch. Then many areas around the world could benefit from low-cost signal distribution that might not otherwise work commercially.