Xponential: Where UAVs (and companies) go to see and be seen

May 15, 2019  - By

This year’s AUVSI Xponential show continued to demonstrate how large, thriving and visionary the UAV market is proving itself to be. With attendance around 8,000 people, an extensive technical program featuring more than 300 speakers, and a huge show floor displaying a wide range of sizes, configurations and applications, this was truly 2019’s place to be, see and — for the exhibitors — be seen.

On the large-format side,

  • an expanding test-range facility in North Dakota brings experimental capability to the oversize crowd,
  • Bell and Boeing are going full-tilt with large UAVs, both rotor and fixed-wing, and
  • a higher level market is emerging at 20 kilometers (12 miles, or 65,000 feet) above the Earth.

In the smaller-sized portion of the market, hydrogen fuel cells are extending operational time, and indoor inspections can be significantly cost- and time-reduced with new task-specific models.

Hurricane Irma response. Tuesday morning’s opening keynote featured an overview of how Florida Power and Light (FPL) and Precision Hawk undertook recovery inspections following Hurricane Irma in 2018.

This rang a bell for me, as Irma was the first hurricane I lived through; it passed 30–50 miles to the east of us, up the center of Florida.

FPL flew 4,000 miles with Precision Hawk drones, looking for downed and damaged transmission lines and blown transformers throughout its massive distribution network.

UAVs on the Show Floor

With roughly 800 exhibitors, it’s impossible to see everything, let alone talk with all the companies. So the following is a small subset from the show, with highlights from the large-format UAV sector and a few smaller ones. Further coverage of the show will appear in next month’s newsletter column.

The Bell Nexus demonstrator drew crowds at AUVSI Xponential 2019. (Photo: Tony Murfin)

The Bell Nexus demonstrator drew crowds at AUVSI Xponential 2019. (Photo: Tony Murfin)

Bell Helicopter. The Bell Nexus demonstration tilt-rotor – judging solely by the number of smartphone picture takers – was the hit of the show.

Nexus is gleaming blue, with six 8-foot tilt-rotors. The booth had a massive display screen in the back running a loop of its exploits, along with what seemed to be animations of future adventures — flying people around city-center skyscrapers.

Tail-sitter package delivery drone. (Photo: Tony Murfin)

Tail-sitter package delivery drone. (Photo: Tony Murfin)

This brings up lots of potential failure modes to be mitigated (six rotors rather than one regular helicopter rotor blade and a complex control system, for instance) for the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to chew on during the certification process.

A large four-tail package-carrying sitter drone for larger item deliveries took second place at the Bell booth, even though it is possibly closer to becoming a reality than the gleaming blue star of the show.

Boeing's tilt-rotor UAV prototype recently flew its first test flight. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing’s tilt-rotor UAV prototype recently flew its first test flight. (Photo: Boeing)

Boeing. Meanwhile, Boeing was apparently preparing to fly a prototype version of a tilt-rotor UAV, only Boeing’s is designed to be a heavy cargo lifter. The Cargo Air Vehicle prototype vehicle has six tilt-capable dual-rotor systems, weighs 1,100 pounds and is 17.5 x 20 x 5 feet tall. It’s interesting how similar the Bell and Boeing (production concept) configurations seem to be.

Boeing design concept for the Cargo Air Vehicle. (Image: Boeing)

Boeing design concept for the Cargo Air Vehicle. (Image: Boeing)

Ballard. Most multi-rotors on UAVs are driven by electric motors, so battery capacity determines the duration of flying time. Ballard has developed the FCair hydrogen fuel cell, which can extend flight time to up to 90 minutes, almost three times that of lithium-ion battery-powered drones.

FCair 600w hydrogen fuel cell. (Photo: Ballard)

FCair 600W hydrogen fuel cell. (Photo: Ballard)

Insitu, AeroVironment, Lockheed-Martin, and others have flown the Ballard fuel-cell system; apparently this list also includes the U.S. Naval Research Laboratory and the Air Force.

Grand Sky. The Grand Sky Aviation Park in North Dakota is co-located within the 217 acres Grand Forks Air Force Base (AFB) and has FAA approval as a UAV beyond-visual-line-of-sight (BVLOS) test range.

North Dakota has invested more than $34 million in UAV efforts within the state, with a good chunk going towards the infrastructure at Grand Sky. Now only UAVs fly out of the facility, with Northrop Grumman and General Atomics making it an operational base for Global Hawk, Reaper and Predator drones.

One of the principal benefits is the ability to fly BVLOS operations for large drones at Grand Sky. The system uses two long-range primary radars, one at Grand Forks AFB and the other in Hillsboro, that can detect non-cooperative aircraft.

Harris RangeVue radar and Harris ADS-B sensors coupled with the Air Force’s DASR-11 radar enable BVLOS testing without using a chase plane or staying within line-of-sight. This enables 10–12 hour missions within the 30-mile, 18,000-foot BVLOS range, with continuous electronic monitoring by the ground-based radar system.

A new operational center is being built to house the integrated system and to provide access for visiting drone operators, and the BVLOS range is expected to be ultimately extended all the way to the Canadian border.

Flyability. The Elios 2 UAS system has evolved to include a rotatable thermal and high-definition visual camera payload, 10,000-lumen oblique lighting system, and reversible rotors that enable the UAV to back out of tricky situations.

A geodesic-like cage surrounding the drone makes it collision-tolerant and enables flight in restricted indoor areas such as refinery enclosures, mines, vats, cargo holds and nuclear containment vessels — anywhere, in fact, that inspections today are regularly conducted by people.

A typical nuclear plant inspection might cost $500,000, while this drone system costs around $35,000, and an inspection might take around 10 minutes. For traditional inspections, plants might have to go offline completely while people crawl around in extremely difficult, often dangerous spaces, and manual reports might take significant time to produce.

Flyability claims huge savings in inspection time with their system, as well as automated analysis and production of reports.

AeroVironment. Just before the show, SoftBank, Japan and AeroVironment held a press conference in Japan outlining their HAPSMobile Joint Venture to address the lack of communications access in many parts of the world. Almost 3.7 billion people, or half the world’s population, currently do not have internet access.

SoftBank wants to provide internet inexpensively, without the need for extensive ground infrastructure, by operating high-altitude pseudo-satellite (HAPS) UAVs. HAPS is expected to fly in the stratosphere at a 20-kilometer height for up to six months, powered by solar cells and equipped with payloads that enable direct connection to the internet for users on the ground.

Airborne-type certification and spectrum will be required for the uplink/downlink. Both present significant challenges, but HAPS suppliers, including Airbus, Facebook and others are joining the fight for spectrum. AeroVironment has a $65 million contract from HAPSMobile to develop and produce HAPS UAVs, and build of their Hawk 30 HAPS UAV is well underway.

HAPSMobile has also taken a minority $125 million position with Loon, which has been flying stratospheric balloons for several years, providing wireless coverage in Puerto Rico after Hurricane Irma, and network coverage in South America.

Other suppliers exploring the HAPS market at the show included Airbus, which displayed its Zephyr UAV and recently announced the opening of the Wyndham HAPS launch site in Western Australia; and UAVOS, which announced a new control system for its HAPS vehicle.

In addition, Boeing’s unmanned aircraft subsidiary, Aurora Flight Sciences, has already made significant claims about the capabilities of its own Odysseus HAPS UAV program.

Recapping the Recap. With many more exhibitors and limited time, the rest of the story from Chicago’s 2019 Xponential exhibition will have to wait till next month, to include show news from Sagetech, uAvionics, Sensefly, Fortem, Septentrio, NovAtel and others.

In sum, we see a wide range of different applications all benefiting from unmanned air vehicles of different types and configurations. A number of outfits are working the HAPS gamble, North Dakota’s BVLOS test-range expansion brings experimental capability to the oversize crowd, and Bell and Boeing are going full-tilt with large UAVs, both rotor and fixed-wing.

These developments clearly indicate that the UAS business continues to grow into a huge number of applications and to look very healthy.

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).