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Self-controlled robots fly, run and serve

Automation progresses in military and civil applications.

By Marvin Cetron
Pres, Forecasting Intl

At FL650, Boeing's Phantom Eye surveillance drone can loiter for 4 days at 150 kts using hydrogen-fueled Ford Focus engines.

It looks like a simple model airplane. Its fuselage is little more than a stick. Its wings are 6 ft 6 in of foam, each carrying a small propeller driven by an electric motor.

Yet the unnamed drone manages to fly among the columns in the garage under MIT's Stata Center at high speed, neatly avoiding the obstacles to maneuver around a figure-8. At some points, the course is barely wider than the plane's wingspan.

Until recently, only a multirotored model helicopter could have met such a challenge. It would have flown slowly, hesitantly, and probably under radio control by a human pilot. In contrast, this ordinary-looking fixed-wing plane makes 22 mph without so much as a GPS to guide it. When it comes to finding its own way, the 5-lb model may be one of the most sophisticated unmanned aircraft in the world.

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) and their cousins in factories, on the ground and under the sea have been evolving rapidly in the 2 years since we last examined them. (See Pro Pilot, Apr 2011, pp 88–91.) They have been growing smarter, more dextrous and, in some cases, more "human." They have also been growing cheaper. Among the more interesting developments are these:

• The US Navy's Northrop Grumman X47B will be the world's first unmanned fighter jet and the first drone designed to operate from an aircraft carrier.
• Boeing's autonomous Phantom Eye high-altitude, long-endurance surveillance aircraft made its first flight last June. It was one of several developments in the race to produce a surveillance platform that can fly for as long as a month without refueling.
• FastRunner, a "robo-ostrich," will be able to run on 2 legs at 27 mph.
• Baxter, from Rethink Robots in Boston MA, has 2 arms and cartoon eyes on a computer screen the size of a tablet. It may be the most versatile and human-friendly industrial robot now on the market. At $22,000, it is also one of the cheapest.
• RP-VITA is a "telepresence" robot—a digital stand-in for doctors that lets them interview and examine patients who may be many miles away.
• Researchers at Heriot-Watt University in Edinburgh, Scotland, are developing intelligent robots to save deep-water coral reefs.

Military robots

Northrop Grumman's carrier-based X47B fighter drone will be refueled by modified Global Hawks for long-range autonomous flight.

As always, much of the most ambitious work on robots is being done for the US military. A case in point is the X47B unmanned combat air system (UCAs). Funded originally by the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency (DARPA), like so many groundbreaking toys, the X47B first took to the air in Feb 2011 after nearly 10 years of development.

As drones go, the X47B is big and fast. At 38 ft 2 in long and with a wingspan of 62 ft 1 in, the vaguely bat-shaped aircraft weighs 14,000 lbs and cruises at Mach 0.45 (about 345 mph) and carries up to 4500 lbs of ordnance. Yet, for a modern fighter jet, it is relatively modest.

The Lockheed Martin/Boeing F22 Raptor, for example, is 62 ft 1 in long, with a wingspan of 44 ft 6 in. It weighs 43,430 lbs empty—more than triple the X47B's heft—and cruises at an estimated 1500 mph. Just one of the hardpoints under its wing—it has 4—will total 5000 lbs. Add a Vulcan Gatling gun, 480 rounds of ammo, 6 AIM120 AAMRAM missiles and 2 AIM9 Side­winders, and the X47B is clearly outmatched.

Where the X47B stands out is in its carrier performance. The 2 X47B demonstrators were supposed to undergo 50 flight tests over 3 years, ending with sea trials in 2013.

They performed so well that the preliminary tests ended after only 16 flights. Capable of flying either autonomously or with a ground pilot, the craft has already performed all the maneuvers needed to take off and land from an aircraft carrier. Actual carrier flights will begin in 2013. A year later, the X47B will demonstrate autonomous inflight refueling to extend its 2000-mile range.

Flight controls are where the X47B shines. Today's drones require a human pilot to fly them from a bank of joysticks and computer screens the size of a large desk. The X47B's "pilot" can program the flight, go for coffee, and let the aircraft deal with any contingencies.

On the carrier, a crewman on the flight deck can power it up, guide it to a landing, and taxi it around using a simple-looking control box strapped to his forearm. In all, the X47B is a major step in freeing drone aircraft from their human managers.

However, it does have some competition. The General Atomics Sea Avenger is a carrier-based derivative of the land-locked Avenger, formerly known as the Predator C. Unlike previous models in the Predator line, the Avenger is powered by a turbofan engine.

Its design has been modified to help evade radar, including such stealth features as an S-shaped exhaust to minimize its heat and radar signatures and an internal weapons bay with a capacity of 3000 lbs. It can travel at up to 460 mph and stay aloft for 20 hrs. The first operational Avenger has already been deployed to Afghanistan. The Sea Avenger remains early in its test phase.

Boeing and Lockheed are also developing UAVs designed for carrier use, but less is known about them. All 4 drones are vying for a construction contract under the Navy's Unmanned Carrier Launched Airborne Surveillance and Strike (UCLASS) program. This is one high-stakes competition. A combat-ready winner should enter the Navy's arsenal by 2019 and could easily dominate robotic aerial warfare for a generation.

Boeing's Phantom Eye made its first flight last June at EDW (Edwards AFB, Edwards CA). It is one of the first practical high-altitude long-endurance (HALE) drones. While the twin-engine, liquid-hydrogen-powered craft remained aloft for just 28 min, it is designed to loiter at altitudes up to 65,000 ft for up to 4 days without refueling.

Global Observer is a HALE competitor from AeroVironment in Monrovia CA. Chairman & CEO Tim Conver calls it a "stratospheric geosynchronous satellite system." Two of the UAVs, each flying a week at a time, could provide 24/7 surveillance of any location on Earth at much less cost than a satellite. Other possible missions include communications relay, border patrol and remote sensing.

However, the prize for longest endurance is likely to go to one of the Zephyr solar-electric-powered UAVs being developed by QinetiQ, headquartered in Farnborough, England. In Jul 2010, a Zephyr flying over the US Army's Yuma Proving Ground in Arizona remained in the air for more than 336 hrs—14 nights—at an altitude of 70,714 ft.

In another test, it was flown on autopilot and by satellite communications. With slender wings up to 40 ft long and covered with solar cells, the Zephyr is expected eventually to remain aloft for up to a month at a time. QinetiQ is scheduled to deliver 7 Zephyrs and 1 ground station by May 2014.

These drones are as much an economic breakthrough as a technological one, notes Teal Group Dir Corporate Analysis Philip Finnegan. "Phantom Eye and Global Observer are expressions of this desire to introduce revolutionary technology that will make UAVs considerably cheaper by increasing their endurance," he comments.

The aerospace industry's commitment to pilotless flight is likely to pay off in the near future, Finnegan believes. "Teal Group sees a strong UAV market over the next decade with procurement of $43.4 billion [worth] of UAVs ... from 2012–21. The US, with $21.8 billion of purchases, will represent almost half of that market. Yet that market continues to be dominated by expensive military drones with very little threat generally to pilots other than the purchase of a small number of UCAVs that will occur very late in the forecast period."


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