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04 May 2016

XPONENTIAL 2016 Day 2 (May 3, 2016) Report

US correspondent Marty Kauchak files the following exclusive report on significant news and developments gained from delegates, exhibitors and others in the defence unmanned vehicle community.

System Developments

E.yo Copter is developing a more capable “flying crane” designed to fly, lift and drop an approximate 280 kg (617 lb.) payload in military and related applications. The E.yo 400 is rapidly and successfully progressing through a bench-testing regimen and is expected to complete its first flight later this year. The 400 is a scaled up version of the E.yo 200 model which completed a successful test flight regimen with an approximate 60 kg. payload.

Jean-Claude Tourn, the company’s president, noted the E.yo 400 is an international project, with subcomponents supplied by Jet Cat (Germany for the engine), ATL (AeroTech Laboratories) (US-UK for the fuel cell bladder), Applimotion (US for the electric motor) and others.            

E.YO's 400

Tourn emphasized that as the baseline E.yo airframe design does not have an anti-torque tail rotor, “it’s less expensive, safer and does not have to deal with torque.”    
 
Insitu (booth 2213) came to this year’s XPONENTIAL having delivered more than 2,000     Scan Eagle aircraft during the last 10 years, and with that fleet having accumulated more than 800,000 flight hours. Don Williamson, the vice president for the Scan Eagle product line, emphasized that data support the firm’s COCO (company-owned, company-operated) service models. “We also have acquisition customers who have bought their own aircraft. We don’t track their flight hours – so we think we’re over 1 million flight hour,” the industry subject matter expert added.

And looking at shipboard employment, Williamson said that Insitu considers itself the “leader in maritime, small UAV operations,” having over 42,000 shipboard hours. This operational milestone has been achieved in 15 navies and on 30 classes of ships.

Whereas the Scan Eagle is rated at about 45 lbs. its larger RQ-21A Blackjack system sibling to be discussed further on, weighs about 135 lbs. and can carry an approximate 40 lb. payload – almost what the Scan Eagle weighs.  

With respect to recent Scan Eagle programme activity Insitu reports the delivery of two systems to the Afghan National Army under Foreign Military Sales. “Additional systems will be delivered this year and into 2017,” Williamson added.    

The recent significant development in the Blackjack portfolio was the US Marine Corps’ declaration of initial operational capability of the UAS this January. The Blackjacks will deploy for the first time this summer with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU).

The recent significant development in the Blackjack portfolio was the US Marine Corps’ declaration of initial operational capability of the UAS this January. The Blackjacks will deploy for the first time this summer with the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (MEU). The MEU will take one Blackjack system, which consists of five air vehicles and two ground control stations, with each station able to manage two air vehicles at once.        

At the AeroVironment booth (1525), Steve Gitlin, the company’s vice president of marketing strategies and communications pointed out “We have been developing the Switchblade solution for a number of years. We initially came up with that concept ourselves. We developed it to the point where we could demonstrate to our customers and were able to attract customer funding to help further the development of that capability,”  The early development efforts resulted in a system solution that the US Army first acknowledged their use of in 2012. Since then the Army has invested unspecified “tens of millions of dollars” to procure the Switchblade tactical missile system. The Simi Valley, California-based company executive added Switchblade is also considered “a lethal, miniature aerial missile system.” The Switchblades’s key capabilities include the fact it is portable and rapidly deployable, with the entire system fitting in the tube it is transported in, that could fit in a backpack. The Switchblade is operated off of AeroVironment’s common ground control station, which is used to operate all other small, AeroVironment unmanned aircraft systems, providing a measure of interoperability across the company’s product portfolio. “It’s precision, because it is transmitting live, stream video which allows the operator to positively identify targets and even to be able to call off the attack in the last moments if a non-combatant appear in a frame of view,” Gitlin added.

The US Army has deployed Switchblade to Afghanistan as an interim measure under the Lethal Miniature Aerial Munition System (LMAMS) initiative. LMAMS is scheduled to become a programme of record in fiscal year 2017. AeroVironment’s Switchblade is expected to be a strong contender for the contract award. Indeed, prior to 2016 XPONENTIAL AeroVironment announced it completed development and moved into production of the Block 10 C upgrade to the Switchblade system. The upgrade incorporates the company’s digital datalink to enable even more capability.

Subsystem News

In an effort to address reliability and related life cycle issues, Insitu and industry partner Orbital UAVE (Australia) are in the final stages of developing the N20 engine for small UASs on the order of Scan Eagle. The N20 is a single cylinder, two-stroke engine capable of burning jet fuel (JP-5, JP-8 and others). The N20’s “secret sauce” is the use of Orbital’s unique air-assisted direct injection system. Geoff Cathcart PhD, an Orbital executive, further explained that “we actually atomize the fuel with pressurized air that is injected in the cylinder and that means we get very small droplet sizes. And then can reliably spark ignite the fuel. So even in cold temperatures and hot temperatures it is a very reliable combustion process with different fuels. And that is what is really all about – making sure the combustion system is reliable in all conditions.”      

Insitu’s Kevin Beloy noted the N20’s development is in its final stages. “We’re going through the final validation testing at Insitu. We have more than 100 hours of flight on this engine through its development,” he added. Additionally the engine has more than 7,000ground test hours, with about 3,000 of that total supporting the US Federal Aviation Administration endurance testing regimen. “We’ll be fielding this engine this fall,” Williamson further revealed.

Another second technology thrust at Insitu is FLARES (Flying Launch and Recovery System). While Scan Eagles are safely and reliably pneumatically launched and then recovered on a cable called Sky Hook, the legacy systems take up too much space on land or sea. FLARES is designed to reduce the Scan Eagle operational footprint and make the system more expeditionary. Insitu’s FLARES industry partner is Hood Tech Corporation. Jim McGrew, Insitu’s FLARES program manager, emphasized his system reduces the legacy launcher and recovery components into one system. Another benefit of FLARES has been the reduction of airframe stress during launch. The official further pointed out, “We’ve been prototyping very quickly. We’ve proven the concept and are test flying with a ‘second generation’ prototype. We’ve proven the physics and it works!”  During the current product development phase, the industry team is focused on integrating required redundancies and reliabilities.                
                                             
Significant activity in the payload space was noted across the exhibition hall floor.

This correspondent found it intriguing that Insitu has integrated more than 135 different payloads onto the Scan Eagles it has delivered. So while Insitu will look to preferred partners, Williamson added, “it ends up that we have people who develop payloads specifically for Scan Eagle. We’re all about the capability the customer is interested in getting on our aircraft, and some of our payloads are developed by our government customers.”

“Finding things out in the ocean can be a very difficult process,” Dave Anderson, the director of advanced payloads at Insitu, observed.  The company’s solution to this vexing challenge in the maritime domain is VIDAR (Visual Detection and Ranging) – developed in collaboration with  Hood Technologies and Sentient (Australia). “This has a large format camera. Working with Sentient, they take that big array of pixels and through change detection, find things that aren’t water – small boats for instance,” Anderson explained and added, “Over about a 20 nautical mile swath of ocean I can find all the things that aren’t water and then cue the other turret to go in and see what they are.”  VIDAR is deployed with the Royal Australian Navy for demonstration and evaluation. The industry collaboration is expected to permit VIDAR to be offered to other customers perhaps as early as 2017.  

Back at booth 1525, AeroVironment also unveiled its Mantis i45 EO/IR Gimbal payload for Puma AE (All Environment). “The i45 sensor suite is incorporating a level of visual awareness and acuity that has never existed in the small unmanned aircraft systems space,” the company’s Gitlin said. In this category of unmanned system the key is superior imagery at undetectable range. “With the i45 sensor we are now improving the visual capabilities of that platform such that from a stand of range of about 500 or so feet from a target of interest, the operator can see even more detail in more wavelengths,” Gitlin concluded. From an EO perspective, there are more levels of “zoom” – about 50 x zoom embedded in the sensor. From an IR perspective, the new payload provides a low light and a nighttime sensor embedded in the system, providing yet more information.  

FLIR (booth 1431) remains competitive in the UAS payload space with its new Vue Pro R radiometric thermal camera for small UASs. The approximate 3oz. camera was developed from the VuePro technology baseline and permits the UAS operations team an opportunity to gather accurate, non-contact temperatures from an aerial perspective. Every still image the Vue Pro R saves contains accurate, calibrated temperature data embedded in every pixel.

Danielle St. Onge, a vertical marketing specialist, said the new product will ship at the end of the second quarter of this year.                            

From the Flight Demonstration Area

The correspondent viewed a flight demonstration of Lockheed Martin’s Indago. The product is a 5-pound (2.3 kg.), versatile quad rotor that can be applied to commercial, civil and military operations. Indago has an endurance of more than 45 minutes at a range up to 3 miles (5 kilometers) when using its handheld controller. The compact and collapsible system can be unfolded and in the air in less than three minutes to provide 360-degree views of the environment. It does not require large bulky cases or specialized transport; rather, the Indago is simply carried in a single backpack with everything required to operate the system.

The demonstration team noted the Indago requires no tools for assembly and that any payload can be quickly swapped. Lockheed Martin is reportedly embarking on its path to field “Gen 3” – a militarized version of the model demonstrated today.