What’s Cooking at the Unmanned Aircraft Show in DC?

August 21, 2013  - By


The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) convention held August 12-15 in Washington, D.C., has been the global marketplace for all things unmanned for the last 39 years — and I was walking the floor trying to find who uses GNSS to do what.

The first thing that hit me is that this is one humongous show! More than 7,000 attendees and close to 600 exhibitors — that’s a lot of people to talk to and a lot of carpet to walk! All the big guys came — most with full-size UAVs on their stands. A good cross-section of companies making and using GNSS were here, too.

At the show, the big news was that FAA had granted two UAS a “Restricted Type Certification” — which most people assumed would allow somewhat unrestricted operation in civilian airspace. But alas, it seems at least for the Boeing/Insitu ScanEagle, that their intended operation — launching from ships off the coast of Alaska looking for whales and ice-flows for oil giant ConocoPhillips — is still quite restricted and appears to be very similar to what FAA has previously authorized under Certificates of Authorization (CoA). Nevertheless, for a vehicle that has already accumulated more than 730,000 reliable flight hours, it’s a step towards regular commercial operations.

The Insitu Scan-Eagle.

The Insitu ScanEagle.

And how does the ScanEagle navigate? Its military cousin, which the U.S. Navy calls the RQ-21A “Integrator,” now uses an integrated autoflight system with a SAASM receiver that can achieve centimeter-level RTK performance. The Rockwell Athena integrated flight system now includes two integrated, next-gen SAASM receivers providing RTK performance via an external processor. RTK capability was evidently developed over a four- or five-month period, and now provides cm-level accuracy over a +10-Km range from the RTK base station.

The Athena 511 INS/GPS/ADAHRS/flight control system.

The Athena 511 INS/GPS/ADAHRS/flight control system.

Rockwell recently announced that the SAASM/RTK version of the Athena flight control/navigation system was a key element in ship-based recovery of the U.S. Navy RQ-21A UAV.

With the launch of the Rockwell Athena SAASM RTK solution, UAVs such as Insitu’s RQ-21A can now have centimeter-level GPS navigation accuracy and also benefit from the high-security features of a SAASM GPS receiver to enable autonomous capture, landing, and other operations. Rockwell also announced during the show that its GB-GRAM-M (M-code GPS receiver) was recently used in a test flight where live military code (M-code) signals were used for the first time to successfully navigate an aircraft. The flight, which took place at Holloman Air Force Base near Alamogordo, N.M., in June, successfully tested the Rockwell GB-GRAM-M integrated into the RQ-11B Raven unmanned aerial system.

The AeroVironment’s Puma AE received the same Restricted Type Certificate as the ScanEagle. The Puma is expected to support emergency response crews for oil spill monitoring and wildlife surveillance over the Beaufort Sea, but AeroVironment hasn’t yet announced a commercial partner it will work with on this. Both newly certified UAS — Insitu’s ScanEagle X200 and AeroVironment’s Puma AE — are “small” UAVs weighing less than 55 pounds. Each is about 4-½ feet long, with wingspans of 10 and 9 feet, respectively. The ScanEagle’s often operates off-shore and is recovered by a crane-supported vertical wire into which the UAV flies and is captured by hooks on the end of its wing — hence the need for RTK-level precision navigation. The Puma AE is man-portable and can be assembled quickly, hand-launched, and recovered on sea or land.

The Ashtech MB-One.

The Ashtech MB-One.

Meanwhile, on the show floor at AUVSI in D.C., we tracked down most of the manufacturers who make or incorporate GNSS into products aimed at the UAV/UAS segment:

  • Navcom provides service over its StarFire PPP (precise point positioning) network for a large number of UAV/UAS operators, including most U.S. military forces.
  • RT-Logic works on algorithms to improve anti-spoofing capabilities.
  • Topcon demonstrated its capabilities across a large number of vertical segments, including ground machine-control, survey, and construction, and is looking for UAV segment openings for its latest B110 compact dual-frequency OEM board.
  • ING Robotic Aviation is a typical GNSS user for auto take-off and landing for rotary and fixed-wing small UAVs — apparently integrating NovAtel RTK receivers.
  • Northrop-Grumman integrates mostly SAASM receivers into its LN-251 advanced airborne INS/GPS for mil-spec UAV applications.
  • SBG Systems is one of several companies offering compact MEMS and FOG INS with integrated GPS receivers — both commercial and mil-spec tactical versions.
The Trimble AP15.

The Trimble AP15.

  • Trimble introduced the Ashtech MB-One OEM receiver, which features an enhanced dual-core, dual-frequency, dual-antenna GNSS engine with 240 channels capable of tracking GPS, GLONASS, Galileo, BeiDou, and QZSS, with both SBAS and L-band corrections. The MB-One can work as two separate, independent receivers, both capable of RTK positioning or provide accurate heading and attitude — a significant capability needing pretty hefty processing! Trimble’s new AP15 embedded GNSS/INS was also announced at AUVSI. Within the last two months, Trimble has apparently combined the operations of their own OEM and Ashtech OEM groups under one management. So it has bags of technology and skills with which to move forward on the OEM receiver front — some powerhouse in the OEM marketplace!
  • L3 has now completed qualification and security certification for its in-house developed TruTrak Evolution Type II SAASM receiver. With a number of assessments and evaluations already under way, customers are now able to move onto production applications following achievement of these two key milestones.
  • Septentrio announced that Raven Aerostar has successfully integrated the GPS/GLONASS AsteRx2eH heading/positioning receiver into its TIF-25K unmanned aerostat system, minimizing receiver hardware.
  • Xsens, Gladiator, MicroStrain, Sparton and Vectornav all exhibited a range of integrated MEMS inertial/GNSS devices for UAVs — each year these packages appear to become smaller, lighter and more capable.
  • NovAtel has evolved its GAJT anti-jam CRPA system to split the receiver/processor electronics from the CRPA antenna. It now uses a four-element CRPA from Antcom, but says the system will work with any four-element CRPA array. A Marine GAJT-700MS is also in the works for release in late 2013. The OEM638 240-channel receiver “tracks all current and upcoming” GNSS constellations, and with 100-Hz RTK is ideally suited for all UAV navigation tasks. NovAtel has in the past been very successful providing commercial receivers for a large number of UAVs, and interest at their booth appeared to be high.
  • The NexNav/Accord GPS Sensor Unit.

    The NexNav/Accord GPS Sensor Unit.

    NexNav/Accord is reportedly supplying its TSO C-145 qualified Max receiver to Free Flight for its airborne system, and also to several other avionics systems suppliers. As UAV/UAS move towards operations in civil airspace, FAA TSO-qualified receivers such as Max and its derivatives will likely become an important element in UAV airborne certified flight management systems. NexNav mini is apparently configured to provide ADS-B Out data, which could well form part of the future sense-and-avoid solution for UAV/UAS.

  • Geodetics has been busy since last year’s AUVSI convention working on relative navigation and establishing a solid distribution chain. Its GEO-ReINAV provides precise 1-2 cm relative position and relative orientation within 0.01-0.02 degrees between moving platforms — so ideal for UAV aerial refueling and precision landing.
  • Hemisphere GNSS is offering its OEM receiver line for UAV guidance systems, in particular its Vector H320 L1 GPS/GLONASS heading receiver. Hemisphere promises there will also be new product and company announcements at Intergeo in Germany and at ION GNSS in Nashville.
Xavier ORR demonstrates Spatial FOG.

Xavier ORR demonstrates Spatial FOG.

  • Advanced Navigation from Sydney, Australia, has integrated the KVH 1750 FOG IMU with a Trimble BD90 L1/L2 GPS/GLONASS, Galileo E1/BeiDou L1 to come out with what they call a Spatial FOG. Coupling ultra-high accuracy KVH fiber optic gyroscopes, accelerometers, magnetometers, and a pressure sensor with an RTK GNSS receiver via a sophisticated fusion algorithm delivers highly accurate and reliable navigation and orientation.
  • Micropilot, based in Winnipeg, Canada, is one of a select few companies who have been very successful in supplying the UAV/UAS industry with a line of autopilots with embedded GPS. Micropilot currently uses an embedded u-blox chip and has one version that adds a NovAtel dual-frequency receiver for triple redundant installations. Its approach is to be very open with its UAV customers to allow them to customize control laws to suit individual vehicle dynamics. Most of its customers are supplying UAV/UAS for civil applications. Micropilot has apparently done a lot of work in developing a suite of verification tools that may assist future civil certification. For military applications, Micropilot mostly embeds Rockwell SAASM receivers.
Micropilot's display.

Micropilot’s display.

  • Cloudcap continues to provide its Piccolo Autopilot line using both u-blox chips and a version with a Navisys GM-601 GPS smart antenna module, which actually uses a u-blox 6 chip and patch antenna.
  • Oxford Technical Solutions brought its RT3000 and RT2000 inertial/GPS measurement units to AUVSI, along with a new mini MEMS version designed for geolocation post processing; a real-time version should be available next year.

So, once again AUVSI has been one heck of a show, with more to see and learn than the available time seemed to allow. And for those exhibitors who I wasn’t able to include, I can only beg for forgiveness — space and time are limited. There were lots of vehicles and lots of vendors supplying the UAV/UAS industry represented at AUVSI, particularly GNSS and GNSS/INS integrated products for navigation, guidance, flight control, surveying and platform stabilization.

Anti-drone strike protesters outside the AUVSI Conference.

Anti-drone strike protesters outside the AUVSI Conference.

And the majority of exhibitors are thinking more of the commercial market as their military business continues to contract — which may please the group who showed up at the doors of the D.C. Convention Center deploring the potential collateral damage that UAVs are purportedly creating in the U.S. war on terrorism.

And for this UAV/UAS commercial market segment, the opportunities seem to be growing, along with the expectation that FAA will begin to move faster to enable many more commercial applications in the near future.

Tony Murfin
GNSS Aerospace

This article is tagged with , and posted in Opinions

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).

4 Comments on "What’s Cooking at the Unmanned Aircraft Show in DC?"

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  1. Jim Horn says:

    Actually, Insitu’s Scan Eagles have been retrieved via the catch wire and wing hook technique for over ten years, long before using SAASM. Their patented use of differential GPS with a reference GPS on the top of the capture wire and clever aircraft algorithms makes that possible. The newer Integrator or RQ-21A take that to their next generation.

    • Tony says:


      Please drop me an email and we can discuss further. I do know that in the past Scan Eagles carry at least one NovAtel RTK receiver (plus ground reference receiver & radio link) and that’s how they have been able to fly accurately into the wire capture window.

      Let’s make contact and discuss further Tony tmurfin@gpsworld.com

  2. Eric Hansen says:

    Next time you’re at a show where BAE Systems is presenting, please stop by so we can show you the Small Antenna System AJ GPS we built with Mayflower. Nocatee isn’t the only show in town. I look forward to seeing you soon.


    • Tony says:

      Eric – Did stop by the BAe booth at AUVSI, but no-one there at the time knew anything about what BAe was doing in GNSS….
      I’d love to talk with you about the BAe AJ system – please drop me an email and we’ll make contact.
      Regards – Tony tmurfin@gpsworld.com