Auterion’s release of Skynode, a plug-and-play avionics and connectivity package based on the open-source PX4 ecosystem, aims to help drone manufacturers and service providers outsource software architecture and create more industry commonality. (Auterion)
With the U.S. government and military eager for a profitable domestic small UAS industry to emerge, software developer Auterion seeks to be part of the solution by bringing together the fragmented industry around its hardware and software solutions, built off of the open-source PX4 ecosystem used by millions of drones flying today.
The Switzerland and California-based startup this week released Skynode, an avionics and wireless connectivity package that drone manufacturers can either purchase as-is and integrate into their platform or license and re-design to fit their requirements.
“Built on top of open standards like FMUv5x, PX4, and MAVLink, Skynode with Auterion PX4 enables drone manufacturers to rapidly enter new markets by making their products compatible with an ecosystem of payloads, components, services, and workflow integrations that give companies the tools they need to deploy large fleets of drones,“ said Lorenz Meier, co-founder of Auterion and original creator of the open-source PX4 software base.
Auterion also partnered with GE Aviation on Skynode RTA, a version of the product that scales down GE’s commercial airliner-class autopilot system, used on the Boeing 777 and 787, to make Skynode certifiable for operations that require higher safety standards, such as cargo delivery in urban areas.
Skynode is a key component in Auterion’s strategy to help drone service providers and manufacturers focus their limited resources, avoid reinventing the wheel and in turn lower their costs — all goals shared by the U.S. military, which continues to raise concerns about the security of Chinese-made DJI drones.
“The Pentagon has to sign off on every Department of Defense use of a DJI drone,” said Dr. Will Roper, Air Force acquisitions chief, during the recent Agility Prime virtual launch — a program aimed at ensuring the military won’t face similar domestic supply problems with electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft.
DJI controls 75-80 percent of the small UAS market worldwide and, through its scale, has prevented the formation of an economically viable competitor in the United States. Through the action of Congress and the White House, DJI is swiftly being pushed out of the U.S. military and government markets, creating a billion-dollar opening many small UAS manufacturers — most with less than 1 percent current market share — are seeking to capitalize on.
The 2020 National Defense Authorization Act (NDAA), signed into law December 20, prevents the military from operating, acquiring or renewing contracts for Chinese drones or drone components, including flight controllers, ground control systems and operating software. Auterion’s Skynode and the PX4 software ecosystem comply with the NDAA’s restrictions as well as the proposed American Security Drone Act, which is yet to pass either house of Congress.
In May 2019, Auterion was awarded a $2 million contract by the Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) to enhance its software architecture, moving toward standardizing the operating system for all small UAS used by the government and making every drone application — unmanned traffic management, data analysis, detect-and-avoid — plug-and-play across different hardware providers, reducing integration costs and training requirements while providing the Pentagon access to the rapid innovation of an open-source development ecosystem.
“That is a primary reason why DIU first — but now U.S. Army, Air Force, [DHS] Customs & Border Patrol, a lot of other departments — are looking at PX4 as an ecosystem and Auterion as the enabler of that ecosystem. Because they can jump on this technology curve,” Auterion co-founder Kevin Sartori told Avionics International. “And no single company can do that, apart from of course DJI because they have 4,500 engineers on staff. A small drone company like Vantage Robotics or Quantum Systems that has a dozen software engineers can’t compete with that ecosystem.”
That DIU contract was renewed this year, according to Sartori, and will convert into a program of record under the U.S. Army’s Short-Range Reconnaissance (SRR) effort to purchase systems based on the PX4 ecosystem, such as Quantum Systems’ Vector and Scorpion defense platforms, which were released in February in partnership with Auterion Government Solutions, a subsidiary company.
The original SRR solicitation, released in November 2018, includes requirements for “an open autopilot software stack” as well as “an open communications (mavlink) and video protocol,” referring to the MAVlink protocol originally developed by Auterion cofounder Lorenz Meier in 2009. The Army’s Long-Range Reconnaissance (LRR) program, to be released next year, is expected to include similar requirements.
“That first solicitation for the Group 1 software architecture already included PX4, MAVlink, QGC [flight control and mission-planning] — they came to it by using the technology first … and then asking for it more and more,” Sartori said. “Now, it’s a big part of DIU’s strategy, and it’s trickling down to other departments.”
What’s the easiest, cheapest way for companies to meet these requirements? To work with Auterion, Sartori said. His goal is to model Auterion after Linux Red Hat, which implements the open-source computer operating system for numerous enterprise, government and military customers.
“Red Hat works with 98 percent of Fortune 500 companies,” Sartori said. “Some of them, the 2 percent, are big enough so that they can implement their own version of Linux, and those are Microsoft, Amazon, Facebook, Google. Everyone else uses Red Hat Linux.”
Red Hat’s enterprise business was not built overnight, but Sartori sees the COVID-19 pandemic as an accelerant that may increase the adoption rate of Auterion’s common platform.
“Crises change the way that we operate. There is a lot of cost pressure on the government as well as enterprises to save cost. Automation is one way, but not reinventing the wheel is another way,” Sartori said. “I could argue that Red Hat Linux would not be what we know today without the Dot Com bubble that just eliminated a lot of companies that were doing their own implementation of Linux. It was normal at the end of the late 90s to build your own Linux. No one would do that today … I think the comparison is pretty similar to the maturity of our industry.”
However, two of the aforementioned companies — Amazon and Google — are major players in the emerging drone delivery industry, through Prime Air and Wing respectively. It’s not clear whether they would choose to adopt Auterion’s technology, but Sartori isn’t concerned about that.
The company is working with DroneCode and ASTM to develop industry standards around the PX4 ecosystem, allowing larger players like Wing — which started with PX4, according to Sartori — the freedom to branch off and build their own implementation of the open-source code, while smaller players can essentially outsource their flight controllers, detect-and-avoid, autopilot and other systems to Auterion and focus on their core competencies.
If Auterion’s vision of the drone industry’s future comes to pass, Sartori believes the Western drone industry could become much more price-competitive with DJI for enterprise applications rather than cheaper consumer drones.
“The market that we can really disrupt is closer to $5-10,000 and up, where you can build a drone made in the U.S. that rivals the [DJI Matrice] M200 at the enterprise level,” Sartori said. “I think we can compete at that level today, provided that we have the hardware companies that will build such a system. And we’re lining that up, so mid-year you will see a couple of manufacturers bring to market drones that have the same benefit as an M200 and are compatible on pricing too.”
“The cost savings for an enterprise isn’t buying a drone that is $2k versus a better drone that is $10k, but rather getting rid of all the integration steps in between,” Sartori added. “It’s not only the cost of procurement but the lifetime cost of the system.”
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Sabrewing unveiled the prototype of its Rhaegal-A unamnned, heavy-lift VTOL aircraft, as well as a $3.25m R&D contract from the U.S. Air Force.
At the conclusion of the Air Force’s Agility Prime event on revolutionary VTOL aircraft, California-based Sabrewing Aircraft revealed their ‘Rhaegal-A’ prototype, an unmanned heavy-lift cargo aircraft that the company says will be capable of moving heavy payloads almost anywhere in the world — landing where many fixed-wing and VTOL aircraft cannot.
“The aircraft is designed to open new locations and deliver cargo where no fixed-wing or helicopter can go, and it’s also designed to land in locations where there is no pad or any other kind of structure,” said CEO Ed de Reyes, noting that the Rhaegal is also able to operate “where no battery, fuel cell or hydrogen tank can go currently,” an advantage it has over many electric and hydrogen VTOL designs under development.
De Reyes also said his company received a Phase 2 SBIR contract from the Air Force worth $3.25 million.
“Our SBIR contract provides R&D funding for using our navigation system and detect-and-avoid system to provide an aircraft position solution in a GPS-denied environment,” de Reyes said. “We will also test this denied GPS solution both on the test bench and in the air to verify that it works correctly. We will also demonstrate the Rhaegal aircraft’s ability to deliver cargo to remote locations and unimproved areas.”
Using the Safran Ardiden 3 engine to power four electric motors, the hybrid-electric Rhaegal-A will use four tilting ducted fans to reach speeds up to 245 mph, according to de Reyes, flying at altitudes up to 22,000 feet for a range exceeding 1,000 nautical miles.
During the Agility Prime launch, Air Force and other government leaders stressed the importance of electric VTOL capabilities for distributed logistics and sustainment as well as rapid deployment and response efforts. Service acquisition chief Dr. Will Roper told reporters the Air Force will buy ‘at least 30’ eVTOL aircraft.
“These new unmanned platforms can be used to drop needed supplies in remote areas, deploy and evacuate soldiers, and provide logistical spokes to make our military more agile and mobile,” Sen. Lisa Murkowski said of the Sabrewing announcement. “It also has many civilian and industry applications such as mass transit, shipping, and even offering safe and secure access to areas where runways aren’t present — like in many parts of Alaska.”
Sabrewing has firm orders for more than 65 aircraft, according to the company, with letters of intent for up to 250 more following type certification, which de Reyes expects to receive from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in December 2021 and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) in July 2021. Customer deliveries are expected to begin in January 2021, with an ability to manufacture up to 500 aircraft per year due to the Rhaegal’s “unique modular construction,” according to de Reyes.
Rhaegal-A’s first flight tests, which will take place at Edwards Air Force Base, were originally slated to begin on June 1, but due to the COVID-19 pandemic will be delayed until quarantines are lifted. The aircraft is also a testbed for Sabrewing’s larger Rhaegal-B variant, which will be capable of carrying 5,400 lbs when taking off vertically and up to 10,000 lbs on conventional takeoff.
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Luuk van Dijk, a software development engineer who previously worked for technology giants Google and SpaceX, is the co-founder and CEO of Zurich, Switzerland-based startup Daedalean.
On this episode, we caught up with Luuk van Dijk, co-founder of Zürich, Switzerland-based startup and provider of autonomous flight control technology Daedalean. On Apr. 1, Daedalean and the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) jointly published a report entitled, “Concepts of Design Assurance for Neural Networks.”
The report is the result of 10 months of work between EASA and Daedalean. According to EASA, the jointly published report is the result of a 10-month collaborative project between the two organizations with the goal of investigating the challenges and concerns of using Neural Networks (NN) in aviation.
Some of the results of the project will serve as a key enabler towards the certification and approval of machine learning in safety-critical applications onboard aircraft.
During our interview with van Dijk, he explains the differences between artificial intelligence, machine learning and how neural networks is effectively a subset of these concepts. The former SpaceX engineer also discusses some of the near term use cases of neural networks within aviation, including how they have been flight testing the use of one for image recognition, object detection and visual landing systems over the last few years in drones, air taxis and manned aircraft.
Have suggestions or topics we should focus on in the next episode as part of this new series? Email the host, Woodrow Bellamy at email@example.com, or drop him a line on Twitter @WbellamyIIIAC.
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The Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Blue Raven supercomputer is to execute artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms for neuromorphic computing on airborne platforms. Photo: AFRL
The United States Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) in Rome, N.Y. is working to develop neuromorphic computing for possible fielding on a drone in the next five years.
AFRL is looking to use artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML) to boost processing power and give military operators analytical results, not raw data, in order to speed wartime decision making.
“Current technology and humans cannot keep up with the deluge of data from high resolution sensors on air platforms and the data is too large to send on slow communications,” Albert Frantz, senior computer engineer in the high performance computing branch of AFRL’s Information Directorate, wrote in an email to Avionics International. “If we can process the data on the air platform using AI/ML then we can communicate just what was found and not the raw data.”
In the 1980s, Carver Mead, a professor of engineering and applied science at the California Institute of Technology, introduced the neuromorphic computing concept. In 1986, Mead was one of two co-founders of Synaptics Inc., a company established to develop analog circuits based in neural networking theories for speech and vision recognition technologies. In 1990, he published his first work on neuromorphic electronic systems in Proceedings of the Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers (IEEE).
“Neuromorphic computing mimics the processing of neural networks in the brain,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics. “Neuromorphic computing architectures are necessary to achieve advanced and new capabilities in pattern recognition, event reasoning, robust decision making, adaptive learning, and autonomous tasking for energy efficient agile Air Force platforms.”
On July 19 last year, AFRL and IBM officially unveiled Blue Raven, what AFRL has called “the world’s largest neuromorphic digital synaptic supercomputer.”
“Today, challenges exist in the mobile and autonomous realms due to the limiting factors of size, weight, and power, of computing devices – commonly referred to as SWaP,” according to AFRL. “The experimental Blue Raven, with its end-to-end IBM TrueNorth ecosystem will aim to improve on the state-of-the-art by delivering the equivalent of 64 million neurons and 16 billion synapses of processing power while only consuming 40 watts – equivalent to a household light bulb.”
For the same SWaP, AFRL is “hoping to increase the processing by four orders of magnitude (10,000) times faster processing than we currently have,” according to Frantz.
Last year, AFRL awarded IBM $74 million of a possible $99 million for the project under a Broad Agency Announcement (BAA) for Robust and Efficient Computing Architectures, Algorithms, and Applications for Embedded Deep Learning. AFRL issued the BAA last year and updated it on Apr. 23.
“The contracts that were awarded late in [fiscal] 2019 will continue for three years into [fiscal] 2022,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics. “They used up all the funding we had for [fiscal] 2019, [fiscal] 2020, [fiscal] 2021 and [fiscal] 2022. Thus, we do not anticipate new awards this year, but we may or may not get funding in future years.”
Engineers and computer scientists at AFRL are to use Blue Raven to execute AI and ML algorithms.
The AFRL research and development under the BAA is “of a prototype nature and fielding is likely 4-5 years away and potentially could go on any platform, likely unmanned first,” Frantz wrote in his email to Avionics.
In addition to AFRL, the Defense Research Projects Agency (DARPA) has been researching neuromorphic computing since 2008 when the agency began the Systems of Neuromorphic Adaptive Plastic Scalable Electronics (SyNAPSE) program.
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|We have a new acronym to add to the list: eVTOLs, UAM, AAM, and now — courtesy of the U.S. Air Force — ORBs. Not only do we have hundreds of vehicle designs competing for the urban air mobility market; we also have organizations vying for the best way to define them.The Agility Prime kickoff week, still ongoing, is certainly an impressive show of support for the industry. How big an impact will it make: on investor confidence, on speed of certification and deployment, and on U.S. presence/supply chain in eVTOLs 10 years from now?
Chris Timchak from Stone Point Capital, a financial services-focused private equity firm that has invested in Beta Technologies, gave an interesting market overview and answer to this question:
“I think we are concerned that there will be a ton of competition, and the corollary that we spend time thinking about is the auto industry at the start of the 20th century and how much companies exist today versus how many started back then from a manufacturing and design component. To mitigate that a bit, we think the market is big enough and there will be multiple participants and many successful designs, but the infrastructure is important to the entire ecosystem.”
Let me know your thoughts.
As always, stay healthy and safe vertical flying,
An MQ-4C is shown after its arrival in Guam (U.S. Navy Photo)
The United States Navy fiscal 2021 budget requests an increase for the development of the Integrated Functional Capability-4 (IFC-4) signals intelligence (SIGINT) package aboard the service’s Northrop Grumman MQ-4C Triton reconnaissance drone.
The budget request defers planned procurement of two of the high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) drones for two years until fiscal 2023 to allow for the maturation of IFC-4.
“What we see in the budget request is the pause in production with the intent of putting resources toward R&D on [a] new sensor,” Northrop Grumman CEO Kathy Warden said in response to an analyst’s question during an Apr. 29 call on the company’s first quarter earnings.
“And we had anticipated that so it will be somewhat of an offset to the production pause,” she said, adding that “we continue to work with Congress as they deliberate on the budget to determine if we can get those two aircraft added back.”
“We do see that it is not just a production pause,” Warden said. “This is the continued commitment to the program and investment in additional sensors to make the program and the platform more robust.”
In an email response to questions from Avionics International, Northrop Grumman wrote that IFC-4 “will provide Triton with a robust signals intelligence capability.”
“The baseline aircraft payload plus the new modifications allow for Triton to operate as a multi-intelligence platform, and enables the retirement of the aging [Lockheed Martin] EP-3E fleet,” according to Northrop Grumman.
The proposed Navy increase for IFC-4 in fiscal 2021 appears to be part of the service’s $27 million request for United States Marine Corps Future Naval Capabilities (FMC), including Enhanced Lethality for Maritime Operations (ELMO). That effort includes a Marine Corps Advanced Technology Demonstration that will “initiate development of new Multi-Function Sensor (MFAS) modes for the MQ-4C Triton Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS), enhancing Distributed Maritime Operations (DMO) with the Next Generation Network (NGN),” according to Navy fiscal 2021 budget documents.
The Navy Triton program under PMA-262 at Patuxent River, Md. did not respond when questioned on the exact amount of the requested increase for IFC-4 in the fiscal 2021 budget.
In late January, two MQ-4C Tritons, representing an early operational capability for the UAV, arrived in Guam to conduct intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions to complement the Boeing P-8A Poseidon.
Northrop Grumman said that it has been trying to reduce costs on the Triton program. A Government Accountability Office (GAO) report last May found that projected Triton development costs had increased 61 percent from $3.5 billion in 2009 to nearly $5.7 billion in October, 2018.
“The original requirements for the MQ-4C Triton did not include the multi-intelligence capability, which was added as a requirement in 2016 to enable the retirement of the EP-3E,” Northrop Grumman wrote in its email to Avionics when asked about the development cost increases. “Our partnership with the Navy has been critical in defining requirements throughout the evolution of the Triton program, and Northrop Grumman has taken a number of steps to drive down program costs. This includes a building a new high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) production site at our Palmdale [Calif.] facility, where we have implemented lean manufacturing processes to create efficiencies.”
In June last year, Iran shot down an older model Navy RQ-4 Global Hawk Broad Area Maritime Surveillance-Demonstrator (BAMS-D), a prototype for the MQ-4C. The Navy bought five BAMS-Ds from the U.S. Air Force as a demonstrator platform before moving to the Triton.
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During their first quarter 2020 earnings call, Boeing’s chief executive provided updates on their work to return the 737 MAX to passenger-carrying service. At present, Boeing is awaiting software validation for the MAX’s flight control computer, separate from the aircraft’s MCAS system, which manages the aircraft’s angle of attack (AOA) sensors, pictured here. Photo: Boeing
A certification flight required to clear the grounding on the 737 MAX is awaiting software validation, with Boeing CEO Dave Calhoun anticipating a third quarter return to service, according to the company’s Apr. 29 first quarter earnings call.
The certification flight awaits software validation for the 737 MAX flight control computer (FCC). Calhoun gave no timeline on when the software validation effort would be complete.
“Right now we’re focused on completing the software validation and required technical documentation that will precede a certification flight, some of the documentation work has taken longer than we expected,” Calhoun said. “And the coronavirus situation has also required some changes to how we do things, including working remotely and virtual meetings with our regulators.”
A representative for Boeing provided an emailed statement to Avionics explaining the software issues that the 737 MAX program has been working through in recent months. According to the representative, the software validation effort focuses on a modification that was made to the flight control computer that is not associated with the MAX’s highly scrutinized Maneuvering Characteristics Augmentation System (MCAS).
The two features in focus include the computer’s microprocessor and autopilot engagement.
“The first issue involves hypothetical faults in the FCC microprocessor, which, in theory, could potentially lead to a runaway stabilizer. While these particular faults have never been observed in flight, the software modification will eliminate the possibility of those faults occurring. The second issue with the FCC could potentially lead to disengagement of the autopilot feature during final approach. While this has also never been observed in flight, and flight deck alerts and warnings are already in place to alert the crew if it did, the software update will prevent this fault from occurring,” the representative said.
Both issues were recently identified by Boeing and solutions are being incorporated at the same time.
The software associated with the 737 MAX flight control system has been an issue for the program’s return to service since at least November, when an article published by Reuters featured a statement from the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) seeking a revision to the software documentation.
Boeing’s 737 MAX 8, the aircraft type used for Ethiopian Airlines flight ET 302, features an enhanced digital flight control system with software that manages functionality of MCAS, emergency descent in autopilot and flight level change mode, spoiler control electronics interface and autopilot roll command alerting system according to the interim report published by Ethiopia’s Ministry of Transport last month. The software version featured on the ET 302 MAX featured an MCAS flight control law that will command stabilizer nose down trim if it receives an AOA condition value that exceeds the threshold at which the computer senses the airplane approaching a stall condition.
An overview of the digital flight control system featured on the MAX. Photo: Ethiopia Ministry of Transport
“Validation is the process of ensuring that the requirements are sufficiently correct and complete,” investigators said in the interim report. “Verification is the process of ensuring that the final product meets the design requirements. Verification activities may include analysis and testing the individual item of equipment (e.g. flight control computer software) and then progressively integrating the equipment into a complete system and even flight testing for verification of a fully integrated system on the aircraft.”
Changes Boeing has made to the MCAS functionality include a new dual sensor feed that will compare data from both AOA vanes, instead of relying on one. Under the new update, the system will only activate a single time and will never provide more input than a pilot can counteract using the control column alone.
Calhoun further clarified any existence of a software glitch associated with the MAX flight control computer – separate from the MCAS system – during an interview on CNBC prior to the earnings call.
“There is a mountain of documentation that has to be completed,” he said. “Sometimes, the documentation work is confused with what is referred to as a software glitch. We have not had software glitches in the performance of our airplane at all on our test flights or otherwise. So, we are going to complete the documentation.”
On the earnings call, Boeing Chief Financial Officer Greg Smith also confirmed that the 737 MAX has completed more than 1,000 flights over the last year. The temporary suspension of 737 MAX production implemented by Boeing in January remains in place for now, with Smith noting it could be lifted and a lower production rate re-opened within the next few months.
“We’ve assumed that we will begin 737 MAX aircraft production at low rates during the second quarter of 2020, as timing and conditions of return to service and COVID-19 impacts are better understood,” Smith said. “We expect to gradually increase the production rate to 31 during 2021 and expect further gradual increases to correspond with market demand.”
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The Canadian Air Mobility Consortium plans to lay the foundations for drone delivery and passenger/cargo air taxis across the nation.
With partners across government, academia, industry and the investing community, the Canadian Air Mobility Consortium plans to lay the foundations for advanced air mobility across the nation, including drone delivery and passenger/cargo air taxis, with an emphasis on sustainability offered by electric aircraft.
Matching closely with NASA’s roadmap for technological development and deployment, the group is raising $1 million from partners — with a 50-50 match from Canadian federal, provincial and local governments — to conduct an economic analysis, develop operational and scenario applications, and then hold a demonstration event in 2020, though that may slip into 2021 due to the coronavirus pandemic.
“We need an [air mobility system to be] equitable, inclusive, intermodal, accessible, and zero-emissions on the vehicle side, to ensure that we’re progressing forward,” said J.R. Hammond, founder and CEO of Canadian Air Mobility, which is currently funded by the National Research Council (NRC) of Canada. “What has developed out of these conversations, especially during the COVID crisis, is how we are focusing on building our next resilient transportation system at the core of the rebuilding and recovery phase … [and] how this resilience factor can be a complement to ground infrastructure and ground transportation systems, rather than a competition.”
Just south of Canada, through a program called Agility Prime, the United States Air Force and federal government have decided to throw their support behind the creation of a commercial air taxi industry — both for dual-use military purpose and nationalistic economic goals. Canada’s NRC plans to approach the budding technology in much the same way.
“The goal is to create this world-class hub ecosystem related to UAM that will touch on transport of people, transport of goods, medical capabilities, [and] UAS services,” said Eric Lefebre, business director at the NRC. “We need to provide [small and medium sized enterprises] with an environment to take that low-technology readiness level innovative technology and ensure they move to a higher TRL, to certification and to commercialization … ultimately having business scalability at the end of that.”
Both the United States and Canada are very much in the testing phase when it comes to drone delivery in populated areas and flying beyond the operator’s visual line of site, though that may soon change — in part due to the urgency presented by the coronavirus pandemic.
In the U.S., CVS and UPS are gearing up to use drones to deliver medical prescriptions direct to 135,000 residents within an elderly community in Florida, sourced from just half a mile away. British Columbia-based InDro Robotics has been conducting similar, longer-range BVLOS tests, mostly in Ottawa.
“We have been flying BVLOS for quite some time. We were fortunate enough to start out early working with first responders,” said Philip Reece, founder of InDro Robotics. “From the very start, Transport Canada were very supportive of the work we were doing. Obviously with it being first response, they have a slightly different need and risk matrix to commercial operations. Some of the first things we started out with way back in 2014 was the ability to deliver a heart defibrillator out into the field or onto a paramedic.”
But with COVID-19 shutting down traditional modes of transportation — and Canada’s geography rendering many populations difficult to access without ferries or airplanes — regulators are eager to ramp up medical drone delivery. Using cellular drones developed in partnership with Nokia, InDro Robotics is working with regulators to bring online a drone-based distribution system in British Columbia, moving supplies and spare parts from a central hospital on Salt Spring Island to medical facilities in nearby island communities no longer serviced by ferry, all in class G airspace.
“A COVID fast-track challenge came to us from Vancouver Island Health. Recognizing the work we’ve done already, they reached out to us to see if we’d be able to service routes and deliver samples, test kits and just-in-time machine parts,” said Reece. “It’s an ideal use case here because it’s short-range, BVLOS — none of those missions are over 12 nautical miles. It’s all going from a hospital, so a controlled environment, to a medical facility, many of which have got a heliport, and we’re transporting light payloads.”
InDro Robotics is working with regulators to fast-track the creation of a just-in-time drone distribution network to respond to urgent medical needs created by the coronavirus. (Philip Reece / InDro Robotics)
InDro modified its existing Nokia drones to lower their weight, increase range and payload capacity and ensure multiple methods of communication. The drones are also equipped with onboard detect-and-avoid capability and ADS-B Out to warn nearby aircraft, though InDro plans to use NOTAMs and a temporary flight restriction if necessary.
“It’s flying over RF, with cellular, and it also has a satellite … divert-to-rally point, or cut motors and fall out of the air,” Reece explained. “But we’re cellular, and we do have range to cover all of those areas.”
Using landing ‘nests’ with cellular connectivity, charging capability and lights for nighttime landings, InDro is working with regulators to begin these medical delivery flights at night and mostly over water or in rural areas.
“This is really the mission that has taken us off our crawl, walk approach and really moved us into a run,” said Reece. “We are working very closely with Transport Canada and Vancouver Health Authority. We’re hoping that COVID will be over before we fly, but I don’t think that’s going to be the case.”
Looking into the future, after the pandemic hopefully recedes and commercial demand for travel bounces back, Vancouver-based helicopter operator HeliJet is keen on bringing electric air taxis into its fleet to develop a ‘hub-and-spoke’ model of transportation across the greater Vancouver region and south down to Seattle, Washington.
“We look at vehicles that are hybrid-electric or otherwise and we see a lot of opportunity,” said Danny Sitnam, CEO of HeliJet, explaining his company’s focus on moving people distances between 100-400 miles. “The vehicle that’s displayed on this slide” — Joby Aviation’s S-4 — “is something that we’re considering, and any other vehicles of this caliber that are demonstrating long-distance capability, reducing our cost per seat mile, and at the same time bringing sustainability to our communities.”
Using new VTOL aircraft including Leonardo’s AW609 civil tiltrotor and eVTOLs, HeliJet plans to expand its service network throughout the Cascadia
Throughout the congested metropolitan areas of Seattle and Vancouver, Sitnam said he sees opportunities to turn 30 to 90-minute drives into 5-15 minute flights.
Sitnam also proposes using eVTOLs to better connect the congested metropolitan areas of Seattle and Vancouver, with opportunities to turn 30 to 90-minute drives into five to fifteen-minute flights. He plans on creating a new company division called Integrated Vertical Mobility to explore these possibilities, working with groups like Nexa Advisors and real estate organizations.
In the near-term, Sitnam is working with health customers to demonstrate new use cases of vertical lift using traditional helicopters. Just this week, working for the B.C. cancer agency, HeliJet began moving extremely time-sensitive radio isotopes from where they are produced in downtown Vancouver to a facility in downtown Victoria.
“Currently, they were moving [radio isotopes] by ground into B.C. ferries, which is a 3-4 hour ferry ride, before it gets to Victoria … by that time, the life expectancy was down to 18 percent of the isotope,” Sitnam said. “Today we moved our first package of isotopes and we were able to deliver them with 46 percent life remaining, so that is going to mean a lot to the patients.”
“When we look at what more we could do, a group like Philip’s team could probably move them from heliport to heliport, eliminating all ground, much more sustainable, and taking it to a place where maybe we could do a delivery in half the time it took the helicopter and the ground system,” Sitnam said, referring to InDro Robotics.
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In a show of force to U.S. industry and investors, the virtual launch of Agility Prime sought to demonstrate the Air Force’s commitment to the commercial success of electric air taxis. (U.S. Air Force)
During the Agility Prime virtual kickoff event, speakers from across NASA, the U.S. Air Force, the Department of Transportation and the Federal Aviation Administration underlined the military and economic importance of U.S. leadership in the development of electric vertical takeoff and landing aircraft, or eVTOLs.
Agility Prime is the Air Force’s effort, along with numerous other federal agencies, to support booming commercial investment into eVTOLs, championed by companies like Uber primarily for use as air taxis in urban settings. The military’s attention to this area of technological development, which has clear military applications, is driven in part by the Pentagon’s self-admitted failure to secure domestic production of small drones — a supply chain defense officials are still fighting to bring back to the U.S.
In a show of force to industry and investors, Air Force Secretary Barbara Barrett, service acquisition chief Dr. Will Roper, DOT Secretary Elaine Chao and many others sought to demonstrate the depth of the federal government and military commitment to accelerating and de-risking the development and deployment of eVTOL aircraft, both commercially and by the military.
“We want to be very clear up front that there is a path for the military market to accelerate domestic use,” said Roper. “Typically, when we engage with an industry partner, it’s our money — our funding — that is the primary basis of the relationship. But in the case of eVTOLs, we bring a lot of things that are a broader value proposition to this very exciting, transformative technology.”
With the private sector funding startups like Joby Aviation to the tune of $720 million, the Air Force will instead offer its test ranges, deep bench of engineering talent, safety certification process and even its reputation — Americans trust whatever the service chooses to fly over a stadium — to accelerate the development and certification of eVTOLs in the United States.
Artists sketched the ideas discussed by speakers during the Air Force’s Agility Prime kickoff event. (U.S. Air Force)
“Our value proposition in engaging with [eVTOL] systems is to bring those things — our ranges, our certifications — get these vehicles quickly through a military certification, start purchasing them, start flying them for military missions that will be radically transformed like logistics, base defense, disaster relief,” said Roper. “And every hour we log will build confidence in investors, in companies and in regulators.”
Timed with the Agility Prime virtual kickoff, the Air Force released two new challenge-based contracting opportunities — in addition to one that opened in February — seeking out nontraditional defense companies with commercial prototypes that are already in the air.
The first new challenge area, or AOI, seeks eVTOL aircraft capable of carrying 1-2 people more than 10 miles at a speed of at least 45 mph. At least a few UAM aircraft currently under development in the private sector are relevant to these requirements, including Wisk’s autonomous two-seater, Cora — on track for passenger transport trials in New Zealand — and Opener’s ultralight BlackFly.
The second AOI released this week by Agility Prime targets unmanned cargo eVTOLs with a maximum gross takeoff weight greater than 1,320 pounds and a payload exceeding 500 pounds. Qualifying aircraft must have a range over 200 miles, cruise speed greater than 100 mph, and an endurance over 100 minutes.
To qualify for either AOI — or the opportunity released in February for larger, 3-8 passenger eVTOLs — the aircraft must make its first full-scale flight prior to Dec. 17, 2020.
Futurists at the Air Force Warfighting Integration Capability (AFWIC) office, who evaluate what tomorrow’s warfighters will need, have consistently seen the usefulness of vertical takeoff and landing capabilities, said AFWIC director Brig. Gen. S. Clinton Hinote, including in logistics and sustainment.
“We see a lot of use cases that have to do with the transport of small packages [in the field], or small groups of people,” Hinote said.
While helicopters will certainly continue to be used in the U.S. military, the Air Force is looking for “another, more widespread, widely applicable solution,” Hinote said, adding that traditional helicopters are generally loud, expensive to build, and require specialized training to fly.
“We certainly would like a solution at a lower cost point for all the right reasons,” he added.
The appeal of eVTOLs to the Air Force lies in five attributes where the aircraft promise to outshine helicopters: mechanical simplicity, for lower maintenance cost and time; autonomy, for improved safety and demands on personnel; ease of mass production; distributed propulsion, for improved acoustics; and runway independence.
Gen. Maryanne Miller, commander of USAF Air Mobility Command (AMC), said Agility Prime concept vehicles would help AMC provide “distributed logistics” to the warfighter in a more flexible, affordable and scalable way, including aeromedical evacuation and global air mobility support missions through increasingly contested environments.
“Can you imagine what these teams could do with the ability to self-deploy and [that are] no longer relying on the logistics transportation network?” Gen. Miller said. “Can you imagine a host of vehicles that any airman can operate to do airfield assessments, security patrols and surveillance, tactical airborne [command and control] and just so much more?”
Through Agility Prime’s “air race to certification” challenges, the service hopes to transition one or multiple eVTOL aircraft to production through more traditional contracting, aiming to initiate a program of record or make a fielding decision by 2023, according to Natasha Tolentino, Agility Prime program manager.
Some of the example use cases offered by Air Force presenters during the Agility Prime virtual kickoff. (U.S. Air Force)
Despite the example use cases given, however, the Air Force is still determining exactly what it plans to do with these aircraft, once procured.
“I truly believe there is a requirement for this, we just don’t quite know what it is yet,” said Lynda Rutledge, Air Force Air Mobility program executive officer.
The benefit of the Air Force-driven Agility Prime effort will be spread across all services, officials noted. Program officers from the Army, Navy, Marine Corps, Air National Guard and Air Force Special Operations Command also participated in the week-long virtual event.
Agility Prime plans to work closely with the FAA to translate commercial certification requirements into military ones and vice versa, said Frank Delsing, flight test lead at Air Force Research Laboratory.
“We actually have in Nebraska … a military certification office (MCO) whose sole responsibility is to give us that kind of transition between FAA and DoD airworthiness,” said Delsing. “So when we go to buy civilian-derivative aircraft and we turn them into military aircraft, that MCO helps us with that transition between an FAA-type certificate and a military type certificate … And that’s one of the other reasons that we are so committed to helping the [vendors] in this industry get to their FAA certification, because that only makes it easier for us in the long run.”
And that assistance may prove critical, as FAA certification officials are increasingly working with eVTOLs — or “advanced air mobility” aircraft, a term NASA and the FAA now use to refer to an umbrella of new propulsion technologies, unmanned aviation and expanded use of low-altitude airspace.
“At the FAA right now, certainly in the certification world, advanced air mobility has become big business,” said Dr. Michael Romanowski, the FAA’s director of policy innovation. “It’s a major driver of what we’re doing right now. I’ll say that we’re currently working with somewhere around 30 unique projects with companies geared towards certifying advanced air mobility vehicles.”
One private company that appreciates the interagency focus is Uber Elevate, the rideshare giant’s ecosystem-approach to bringing urban air mobility to traffic-congested cities worldwide, with vehicle partners including Hyundai Motors, Boeing subsidiary Aurora Flight Sciences, helicopter major Bell, and Toyota-backed Joby Aviation.
“I’ve always felt that government, the Department of Defense, and NASA have a vital role to reduce risk,” said Mark Moore, aviation director of engineering at Uber Elevate. “This is bigger than any one company. This is tens of billions of dollars of investment that is required.”
“If you look across our partners, just to develop one experimental aircraft is $100 million-$150 million. To certify that aircraft is $700 million to $1 billion,” Moore added. “These are really, really high stakes, and for both the Department of Defense and NASA to be helping to reduce risk, and to show the breadth of missions that these things can apply to, is fantastic. It really helps the investment community to understand and to stick with this, even during trying days such as we’re going through right now.”
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Boeing and Embraer have become entangled in a legal battle after Boeing terminated its Master Transaction Agreement (MTA), under which the two companies sought to establish a new level of strategic partnership. Pictured here, is Embraer’s E-190 E2 regional airliner. Photo: Embraer
Brazilian commercial and military aircraft manufacturer Embraer on Monday said it has “commenced arbitration proceedings” following Boeing’s announcement last Saturday that it has terminated an agreement with Embraer to create joint ventures in commercial aviation and a military cargo plane.
After Boeing announced its termination of the Master Transaction Agreement (MTA) due to what it said were unsuccessful negotiations to resolve certain conditions with the deal, Embraer followed on Saturday with its own statement that Boeing was wrong to end its agreement and wanted to avoid paying the company $4.2 billion. The two companies first signed non-binding agreement to form the joint venture nearly two years ago.
“We believe Boeing has engaged in a systematic pattern of delay and repeated violations of the MTA, because of its unwillingness to complete the transaction in light of its own financial condition and 737 MAX and other business and reputational problems,” Embraer said on Saturday. “Embraer believes it is in full compliance with its obligations under the MTA and that it has satisfied all conditions required to be accomplished by April 24, 2020. Embraer will pursue all remedies against Boing for the damages incurred by Embraer as a result of Boeing’s wrongful termination and violation of the MTA.”
In July 2018, Boeing and Embraer said they would create a strategic partnership around the development of commercial aircraft and the C-390 multi-mission medium cargo and transport plane. Under terms of the commercial joint venture, which was formally agreed to in December 2018, Boeing would own an 80 percent stake and would give the U.S. aerospace giant the opportunity to market and sell smaller, regional planes that typically seat fewer than 150 passengers. Boeing’s commercial aircraft aimed at airlines usually carry 150 or more passengers.
For the C-390 joint venture, Boeing had agreed on a 49 percent stake. The two companies have had a joint marketing and support agreement in place since 2012 for the Embraer-developed C-390 and that arrangement remains intact, Boeing said on Saturday.
The C-390 Millennium aircraft joint venture would have expanded global marketing efforts and brought Boeing investments in engineering, research, development and the supply chain.
Last month, Embraer suspended its financial forecast for 2020 amid the ongoing impact of the COVID-19 virus, noting that during the fourth quarter of 2019, the company suffered a net loss of nearly $210 million mostly due to expenses associated with the proposed joint venture with Boeing.
“Boeing has worked diligently over more than two years to finalize its transaction with Embraer,” Marc Allen, president of Boeing’s Embraer Partnership & Group Operations, said in a statement. “Over the past several months, we had productive but ultimately unsuccessful negotiations about unsatisfied MTA conditions. We all aimed to resolve those by the initial termination date, but it didn’t happen. It is deeply disappointing. But we have reached a point where continued negotiation within the framework of the MTA is not going to resolve the outstanding issues.”
The tie-up between Boeing and Embraer was still awaiting approval by the European Commission.
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