Beyond the ‘drone:’ Highlights from America’s largest unmanned systems confab

August 20, 2013, 3:52 PM UTC
The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International's annual expo is something like the Detroit Auto Show for drones (though the industry would really rather you not call them "drones.") All the serious players large and small are present, and every one of them has its latest and greatest hardware polished and on display. But to think of what's happening at the Walter E. Washington Convention Center in Washington, D.C. as simply a "drone show" is to miss what's really happening in the unmanned systems space. The remotely piloted unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that have become associated with the word "drone" via America's shadow wars in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia are relatively dumb machines next to the emerging class of smarter, more effective, more widely applicable -- and yes, in some cases more deadly -- robotic systems crowding the exhibit hall floor. If anything sets this year's AUVSI expo apart from years past, it's autonomy. The systems on display here do more flying, diving, driving, piloting, orbiting, loitering, and processing all by themselves than any generation of robotic systems before them. The hardware is now tried, tested, and dependable. Consistent with its defense-centric past, most of the more significant developments at AUVSI were military-related, but applications for these technologies reach far beyond the battlefield. What follows is a short highlight reel of the concepts, newsworthy developments, and robotic tech coming out of America's biggest "drone show." Just don't tell anyone we called it that.

AeroVironment's long-endurance Puma

One of the limiting factors of small UAS -- the kind that civilians might use to inspect power lines, food crops, or infrastructure -- is endurance. Small fixed-wing UAS can often only get an hour (maybe two) of power. So it's significant that Monrovia, Calif.-based AeroVironment's fixed-wing Puma AE recently logged a continuous flight lasting 9 hours and 11 minutes. The 13-pound, hand-launched Puma (to take off, the operator simply heaves it into the air like a football) also recently received a first-of-its-kind commercial flight certification from the Federal Aviation Administration, clearing it for commercial operation in the Arctic and, in a few years when national airspace regulations are settled, in the U.S. Though currently experimental, the solar-cell-augmented Puma AE should be ready for production sometime next year, offering commercial companies and research groups working in the Arctic an affordable, long-endurance source of aerial imagery.

Sikorsky's Matrix autonomous helicopter

Last Tuesday, storied helicopter manufacturer Sikorsky announced a significant addition to its research and development portfolio, unveiling a multi-year initiative to develop technology for autonomous helicopter flight. The Matrix Technology program isn't just about building an unmanned helicopter that can be programmed to fly itself, company execs say. It will allow helicopters to be controlled remotely, or will allow pilots onboard to perform other flight-related tasks while the aircraft handles the low-level piloting of the helicopter. In the vision put forth by the Matrix program, pilots will become more like mission managers that will be able to conduct their duties either from the ground or from aboard the aircraft.

The Navy's unmanned helicopter

When the Navy launched and landed its experimental X-47B unmanned jet aboard the aircraft carrier U.S.S. George H.W. Bush earlier this summer, it was widely referred to as the Navy's first real "drone." But the Navy has actually been flying an unmanned helicopter known as the MQ-8B Fire Scout for years now. Northrop Grumman (NOC), maker of the Fire Scout, announced at last week's AUVSI show that a full 5,000 of those hours were logged in the Afghanistan theater of operations. But the more interesting news regarding Fire Scout came from Naval Air Weapons Station China Lake in California's Mojave Desert. In a development that will surely make the anti-drone crowd squirm, the Navy announced that a Fire Scout armed with a guided rocket munition known as the Advanced Precision Kill Weapons System had completed 12 firings of the projectile, with 11 of those successfully hitting within the desired target radius. The Navy has been talking about integrating the APKWS (which is essentially a Vietnam-era legacy "dumb" rocket upgraded with a precision guidance module, making it quite smart) on Fire Scout for more than a year. Now we know they've done so, and it's working.

ReconRobotics' SkyScout

Minnesota-based ReconRobotics made its name in the defense world through its "Throwbot" products, a line of beer-can-sized wheeled robots that police or military personnel can hurl over a wall, through a window, or anywhere else they're needed. Tiny cameras beam video back to the robots' handheld controllers. At AUVSI 2013, the company debuted its Recon SkyScout, a tethered quadrotor that executes a limited mission profile extremely simply and well. The problem with small UAS, as mentioned previously, is largely one of endurance. SkyScout overcomes this by simply tethering to the ground via a long, thin wire that connects the aircraft in the sky to a power source on the ground. It can stay overhead indefinitely, but tethered aircraft are limited in their lateral movement. But for many law enforcement and military missions, operators on the ground need persistent overhead situational awareness -- a constant view from overhead. Whether surveilling an ongoing hostage situation or augmenting forward operating base security, SkyScout is designed to fly up to 100 feet above the operator and then stay there, providing 360 degrees of birds-eye view. It might sound simplistic next some of the more sophisticated robots on display at AUVSI, but the defense and law enforcement communities know that reliability and simplicity trump complexity in most dangerous situations. Embassy security personnel from both the U.S. and the U.K. were spotted at Recon's AUVSI booth, eyebrows raised.

The next generation of Navy combat drones

The Navy made a media splash this summer when, alongside private-sector partner Northrop Grumman, it launched and recovered the first autonomous combat jet from the deck of an aircraft carrier. But the X-47B, as the experimental aircraft is known, will conclude test flights sometime next year. Now, with the baseline technology in place, the real competition to build the Navy's carrier- and combat-capable UAS fleet of the future gets underway in earnest. Though Northrop Grumman will remain in that race with some variant of the X-47B, other contenders are jumping into the competition. Boeing (BA) plans to update one of its concept UAS. General Atomics (maker of the Reaper and Predator UAS currently deployed in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Yemen and elsewhere) plans to put forward a design, and at AUVSI Lockheed Martin (LMT) gave attendees their most detailed look yet at its emerging concept UAS (pictured above). The Navy is about to kick off a flurry of research into autonomous flight capability (with a lucrative production contract as incentive), making the upcoming Unmanned Carrier-Launched Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program a space to keep an eye on.

DARPA's flying car now hauls cargo

A few years ago, Pentagon blue-sky research arm DARPA put out a call for proposals for nothing short of a flying ca r-- specifically a Humvee-like troop carrier that could also take off and land vertically, hauling four soldiers and their gear through the air at speed. The idea was as far-fetched as it sounds, but Lockheed Martin came forward with a design for a vehicle packing two massive ducted fans on top that was plausible enough to pass two DARPA design reviews. In the last year, DARPA has lost interest in its flying car. But it hasn't abandoned the program altogether, instead asking Lockheed engineers to move forward with the design of the ducted fan lift system that would've provided lift to its flying Humvee design. The twist: DARPA now wants the lift system to be adaptable to a variety of different payloads. What DARPA ultimately envisions is an autonomous flying lift system that could carry intelligence sensor packages or pick up and deliver cargo pallets or even vehicles (but without people in them) between ships or military bases or to troops in the field. Such a transport system could even work as an autonomous, unmanned ambulance transport, dropping into combat zones to collect wounded soldiers and fly them back to safety without putting manned Medevac units at risk. Transformer, as the concept is known, is still just a concept. But Lockheed has been granted a contract to develop a prototype capable of lifting 3,000 pounds for demonstration by 2015.

QinetiQ's MAARS gets vocal

The not-so-friendly looking robot above looks like what science fiction has long warned us about. But QinetiQ's Modular Advanced Armed Robotic System (MAARS) doesn't have to be as menacing as it looks. "It's an armed way of responding to something without necessarily taking armed action," says QinetiQ CEO Dr. J.D. Crouch. "It doesn't have to defend itself, whereas humans have to defend themselves." In that sense, Crouch describes MAARS as a "force de-escalator." It can be configured to impart lethal force, but MAARS is also designed to carry all kinds of less-lethal projectiles and non-lethal countermeasures like laser dazzlers, as well as day- and night-vision cameras and acoustic sensors to enhance situational awareness. The U.S. armed forces have taken delivery of a small number of the systems to develop tactics and concepts of operations around the technology. That is, MAARS isn't forward deployed -- that we know of. The MAARS system has been around for a few years now, but new this year is a voice command system that allows soldiers and marines to direct the MAARS platform -- but not its weaponry -- via vocal commands, much as they would a human member of their own squad.