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Author: Subject: UAV's & Optionally-manned air vehicles

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[*] posted on 5-8-2017 at 01:02 PM

Future European MALE UAV will be twin turboprop

04 August, 2017 SOURCE: BY: Stephen Trimble Washington DC

A future European rival to the US Air Force’s MQ-9 Reaper unmanned air system (UAS) will feature a twin-engined turboprop configuration, says a multi-national weapons development agency.

After a 10-month study, the co-contractors – Airbus Defence and Space, Dassault Aviation and Leonardo – selected a twin-turboprop design as the basic configuration for the European medium altitude long endurance (MALE) UAS, the Organisation for Joint Armament Collaboration (OCCAR) announced.

Further trade-off studies by the four-nation programme, including France, Germany, Italy and Spain will now be conducted to prepare for an upcoming system requirements review (SRR), OCCAR says.

A schedule and plans for the development phase will take shape in the year after the SRR is completed, the agency adds.

The selection of a twin-turboprop configuration is an interesting twist in Europe’s long and winding route to developing a MALE-class UAV.

The USA and Israel operate single-engined turboprop-powered MALE UAVs – the General Atomics Aeronautical Systems Inc Predator B/MQ-9 Reaper and Israel Aerospace Industries Eitan/Heron TP.

But the European contractors involved in the OCCAR study have focused previous independent and joint efforts on developing various jet-powered MALE UAV types, including the Airbus single-engined Barracuda and twin-engined Talarion demonstrators, as well as the multi-national Neuron stealth UAV, which involved Dassault, Leonardo and Airbus.

Interestingly, BAE Systems designed and flew the twin-turboprop Taranis UAV demonstrator, but is not involved in the OCCAR development effort.
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[*] posted on 5-8-2017 at 01:10 PM

AFRL funds demonstration for extended range Desert Hawk

04 August, 2017 SOURCE: BY: Leigh Giangreco Washington DC

The US Air Force Research Laboratory is funding advanced technologies for Lockheed Martin’s Desert Hawk Extended Endurance and Range (DH EER) unmanned air vehicle, including upgrades that will allow maritime operations.

AFRL’s Advanced Power Technology Office awarded Lockheed the 1 August contract, which will focus on a technology demonstration but also include some development in the UAV’s propulsion system, power management system, and airframe structure, an AFRL spokeswoman tells FlightGlobal.

The contract will prepare the current DH ERR, a hand-launched, 8kg (18lb) UAV with a 10h endurnace, for an operational assessment. Development will continue through next May, followed by integration efforts and a final demonstration scheduled for November 2018.

Lockheed will make DH ERR fully waterproof and buoyant for water landing and retrieval, allowing employment in maritime environments, a Lockheed spokeswoman says.

The UAV could be used for several missions, including strike or intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance, though the current demonstration UAV will be configured with an electro-optical/infrared (EO/IR) gimbal camera, according to the USAF.
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[*] posted on 8-8-2017 at 10:56 AM

U.S. Army Grounds DJI Drones Over 'Cyber Vulnerabilities'

by Bill Carey - August 4, 2017, 12:04 PM

Shown is a DJI Phantom 4 quadcopter. The U.S. Army has issued 300 airworthiness releases for DJI products. (Photo: DJI)

Updated with U.S. Army statement and updated DJI statement.

The U.S. Army has directed its units to cease using drones manufactured by Shenzhen, China-based DJI out of concern for “cyber vulnerabilities.” The order, contained in an August 2 memorandum, grounds products supplied by the leading manufacturer of small drones and camera systems.

Issued by the Army  office of the deputy chief of staff at the Pentagon, the memorandum orders units to “cease all use, uninstall all DJI applications, remove all batteries/storage media from devices, and secure equipment for follow-on direction.”

News service sUAS News posted a copy of the memorandum on its website, and it was widely distributed on social media. The Army did not immediately respond to an AIN request for a copy of the document, so its authenticity could not be confirmed.

(After publication of this article, the Army issued the following statement: “We can confirm that guidance was issued; however, we are currently reviewing the guidance and cannot comment further at this time.)

As references for the order, the memorandum lists a classified Army Research Laboratory report on DJI unmanned aircraft system (UAS) “technology threat and user vulnerabilities” and a Navy memorandum regarding operational risks of using DJI products.

The Army’s Aviation Engineering Directorate has issued more than 300 separate airworthiness releases for DJI products in support of multiple organizations, according to the memorandum. “Due to increased awareness of cyber vulnerabilities associated with DJI products, it is directed that the U.S. Army halt use of all DJI products,” the document states. “The guidance applies to all DJI UAS and any system that employs DJI electrical components or software including, but not limited to, flight computers, cameras, radios, batteries, speed controllers, GPS units, handheld control stations, or devices with DJI software applications installed.”

DJI said that it was not notified in advance of the order. The company cautioned against “undue speculation” and said it was reaching out to the Army to confirm the memo and to understand what the service meant by the term “cyber vulnerabilities.”

In a statement, the company said, “People, businesses and governments around the world rely on DJI’s products and technology for a variety of uses, including sensitive and mission critical operations…We are surprised and disappointed to read reports of the U.S. Army’s unprompted restriction on DJI drones as we were not consulted during their decision. We are happy to work directly with any organization, including the U.S. Army, that has concerns about our management of cyber issues.”

On August 7, DJI issued an updated statement that reads in part:

“DJI makes civilian drones for peaceful purposes. They are built for personal and professional use, and are not designed for military uses or constructed to military specifications. We do not market our products for military customers, and if military members choose to buy and use our products as the best way to accomplish their tasks, we have no way of knowing who they are or what they do with them. The U.S. Army has not explained why it suddenly banned the use of DJI drones and components, what 'cyber vulnerabilities' it is concerned about, or whether it has also excluded drones made by other manufacturers.

“If any of our customers have questions or concerns about DJI’s technology, we ask them to contact us directly so we can work to address them.”
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[*] posted on 8-8-2017 at 11:02 AM

Strange one this................the Israeli's are issuing the DJI UAV's widely throughout their forces, especially ground forces until they have their own dedicated military quadcopter in action. WHEN that latter quadcopter is going to be in action or available is not publicly defined?

The Israeli's ONLY will allow DJI quadcopters to be used, no other.............

Now you could suppose the Israeli's know how to deal with Cyber warfare, so anything amiss should be generally known? Perhaps they replace the errant items with non-suspect ones? OR perhaps this is just a US knee-jerk reaction to the popularity of Chinese-made equipment.............who knows?
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[*] posted on 8-8-2017 at 11:25 AM

Listen: 3 Questions on Consumer Drones & Security

By Ben Watson

4:31 PM ET

screenshot via U.S. Marine Corps video

The US Army recently banned soldiers from using a popular brand of consumer drone because of cyber concerns — and that's just one of the new security challenges posed by inexpensive yet capable flying robots.

Transcript : 

Small, unmanned aircraft are revolutionizing civilian industries. But they’re posing new risks that are forcing military and security agencies to rethink their operations.

The Pentagon, for instance, just announced it will shoot down drones that threaten its bases.

And just last week, the U.S. Army banned its soldiers from using consumer drones from Chinese manufacturer, DJI — citing a classified “cyber” risk.

So we’re going to investigate three questions about this still-evolving industry to tell you a little bit more about the future — and risks — of consumer drones.

1. How many are already flying in the U.S.?

There are more than 880,000 total registered UAVs in the United States today.

The lion’s share belong to hobbyists. And 2017 has already been a busy year for the commercial side — nearly doubling the registered total since January.

And the companies atop the industry: Chinese drone maker DJI — valued at about $8 billion — has been crushing it, with an estimated market share of 70%. Five of the top 10 companies come from China. France continues to sit well with Parrot at number two. And the U.S. rounds out the remaining spots.

And where to put your money? In a report put out just last year, the bank Goldman Sachs predicted $100 billion will be spent on both military and civilian drones by 2020. Leading the commercial side: construction, agriculture, insurance and infrastructure inspection.

The FAA’s prediction over the next five years? 3.5 million registered drones; maybe a million more.

The number of registered non-drone aircraft? That’s only about 320,000.

So between buzzing sensitive airfields and secretive military bases, or surveying any one of the Department of Homeland Security’s 16 kinds of critical infrastructure — it’s not hard to see airspace and trespassing problems on the horizon.

Some companies — like 3D Robotics — have already ditched the hobbyist side of drones, focusing more on software to help professionals interpret the data UAVs can collect.

Which leads us to question number two…

2. What can they do?

Among the growing applications—
- 3D modeling / computer mapping
- Land / infrastructure survey
- Aerial inspections of oil and gas facilities, solar power installations, and wind farms.
- Agriculture and crop monitoring
- And delivery systems for companies like Amazon
- And the more traditional applications—
- Real Estate
- Photography  
- Emergency response units.

And of course the military — from public relations aerial photography, to surveillance and overwatch on battlefields like the war against ISIS in Iraq and Syria. 

Which brings us to…

3. How much does it matter what bad guys can do with them?

One expert who knows a thing or two about terrorists’ capabilities is this guy.

“Hey I’m Brett Velicovich, I’m the founder and CEO of Expert Drones — we’re one of the largest brick-and-mortar consumer drone companies in the United States.

“My background is army. I used to work in the intelligence corps. I worked a lot with drone technology, UAVs, ISR — all the fancy tech that we have to go after terrorists around the world…
And how can terrorists make these things lethal?

“All it takes is really something as simple as this. Ok, right here is a device that is built to trigger a payload. So this actually hooks onto the sides of this, underneath, and this closes. And all you have to do, something for less than a hundred bucks, is literally put it on the bottom of this, and it allows you to trigger a mechanism that will release a payload…”

A delivery system that’s seeing wide interest in emergency and medical services. For good, in other words.

“When you look at the other side and you see how effective drones are and how these cameras can look at irrigation issues, how they can check for disease, how they can do crop monitoring, how they can even spray pesticides now — you’re like, ‘why aren’t you using this?’ But if they’re not using it, it doesn’t matter. And the funding isn’t there to support it.”

Not yet, anyway. Meantime, he said:

“There’s a debate over the lethality of consumer drones being able to drop an artillery shell, or a grenade or a mortar. The problem is, yeah, absolutely it could kill somebody. But it’s not at the lethality that a Hellfire missile would have. The issue is that that’s changing. …all these manufacturers, all day long they’re trying to figure out ways to be able to put heavier payloads on a drone, so you can carry more explosives on it, how to make it lighter, how to make it fly further, how to make the battery last longer… And there’s a gap between government, fancy drone tech and consumer tech is slowly closing. And I think it’s important America gets a handle on that.”

Helping us get a handle on it even further — I spoke to a man who studies weapons of the future. He even wrote a book about it. And he keeps writing about it every week over at Popular Science.

His name: Peter W. Singer, strategist at New America.
The problem is we’re playing catch up to a trend that we could see coming at us for multiple years…

it’s in many ways parallel to the story of IEDs where IED was not a new technology. We knew about it. We also knew that bad guys were using them we should have put two and two together got hold it…

Now you have base commanders inside the United States going hey guess what. The same kind of thing can happen here…”

Hackers have been drawn to those Chinese-made DJI drones for years. At 2015’s DefCon23 hacking conference in Las Vegas, security expert Michael Robinson showed how to break into and manipulate the GPS software for DJI’s Phantom 3 drone — and the industry’s number two leader, the Bebop drone from French drone-maker Parrot.

Other researchers in Baltimore — Duncan Woodbury and Nick Haltmayer, who call themselves “the Drone Slayers” — illustrated similar problems in January of this year. They were sponsored in part by U.S. Special Operations Command.

It gets a little technical, but here’s a bit of what they found:

“You can log in as such — and get root access to the entire file system that we see here. It logs into the temp directory… You can enter some of the crucial directories, such as the prod folder, and actually drop this little FTP bomb — where delete the whole prod folder in-flight, and crash the drone.”

And those no-fly-zones?

“We were able to find the geo-fencing data in the folder res raw, and in the fly-forbid dot jay-son file. By modifying this file, we were able to increase the radius of the Baltimore-Washington International airport so that we were not able to fly the drone.

It was also possible to modify the geo-fencing data such that you can fly in otherwise restricted areas, or to make other areas that were potentially unrestricted restricted in a similar fashion.”

There is a clear interest in grasping how many different ways these things are vulnerable — a topic the consumer industry as well as the U.S. military learned a bit more about after DJI made a surprise announcement in April.

“And here’s the dangerous part about that is DJI started telling everyone you have to register with us. And if you don’t register your information with us, we’re gonna throttle your drone so that it doesn’t fly like it should.

Days later, the U.S. Army published a classified report on security vulnerabilities of DJI drones, in particular.

“So think about that: a company can literally make this drone fly at ⅓ of its capacity and also they said they would disconnect the livestream video…unless you register with them. If they can do that, what else can they do?”

By the time DJI made that announcement, a month had passed since the company added portions of Iraq and Syria to its drone network’s geofence system. It was a move sure to have alarmed not just ISIS using DJI products in those two countries, but also U.S. special operators fighting them there, too — at times using DJI drones ahead of assaults.

And back stateside — what about a would-be bad guy, or an unwitting hobbyist may fly near U.S. military bases? Or ones where stealth aircraft like F-22 Raptors fly for training?

Someone buzzed one of those earlier this year, Gen. Mike Holmes, the head of U.S. Air Combat Command said in July, without going into specifics.

For these problems, there are a few systems already on the market. Things like Israeli-made detectors, and jamming weapons like the DroneDefender gun.

For its part, the U.S. military announced on August 7th that it reserves the right to shoot down any drones that may threaten troops on its bases in any way.

And that — like the U.S. Army decision — is a start for addressing the many problems posed by consumer drones.

But Peter Singer says more will be required to shore up defenses on sensitive infrastructure and military bases — and that could present a whole new set of challenges as technology gets smarter and smarter.

“Where this is going to get different and more difficult for the defender is as systems become more and more autonomous. As they become less reliant on someone joystick in it from afar and even become able to operate without pulling down information from a GPS or the like words you know using visual recognition for its flight — which by the way the U.S. military is developing for its own systems because it knows its adversaries are trying to jam or take away GPS.”
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[*] posted on 9-8-2017 at 03:04 PM

New Kratos UAV will enter production this year

08 August, 2017 SOURCE: BY: Leigh Giangreco Washington DC

A secret unmanned air vehicle (UAV) from Kratos Defense and Security Solutions is expected to move into production by the end of this business quarter, Kratos’ chief executive says on 8 August.

Kratos first tipped off the existence of the confidential programme earlier this spring, after confirming to FlightGlobal that the company had successfully completed several demonstration flights with the new jet-powered, high-subsonic (UAV).

Kratos has not revealed the identity of the UAV's government agency customer.

During a presentation at the Jefferies 2017 Investor Conference, Kratos CEO Eric DeMarco told investors revenue from the secret programme will help double the company’s UAV business over the next year.

The UAV is designed for an anti-access area denied environment and its altitude performance ranges up to 45,000ft, DeMarco says. Kratos has not disclosed the aircraft’s g-force tolerance, stealth profile or range, but says the jet can perform sustained-g turns and weaves. Like other Kratos UAVs, the new aircraft is launched on a railed catapult and recovered by deploying a parachute and floating to the ground.

In addition to its secret UAV programme, Kratos is banking on several other low-cost UAV gambits. Locked in Kratos’ crosshairs is the US Air Force’s Low-Cost, Attritable Strike Unmanned Air System Demonstration (LCASD), which focuses on designing a faster, more survivable UAV for an airspace congested by advanced surface-to-air missiles and peer adversary aircraft. LCASD also falls under the Air Force Research Laboratory’s Loyal Wingman programme, which aims to increase a manned fighter’s capabilities by teaming it with an autonomous jet, DeMarco says. Kratos expects to demonstrate its LCASD UAV by late next year.

Kratos is also eyeing the downselect for the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency’s Gremlins programme, which is set for late this year. Unlike the ground-launched LCASD programme, the Gremlins concepts envisions the ability to launch and recover UAVs from an airborne platform.

Kratos is participating in the Gremlins programme as a subcontractor to Alabama-based Dynetics.
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[*] posted on 16-8-2017 at 09:33 AM

Meteor to make bigger Impact with MALE development

15 August, 2017 SOURCE: BY: Arie Egozi Tel Aviv

Israel's Meteor Aerospace is developing a medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) unmanned air vehicle, with the Impact 1300 to have a maximum take-off weight of 1,300kg (2,860lb). The new product is now in full-scale development, the company says.

Flight tests are due to commence by 2019, with the Impact 1300 having a twin-boom design and to be powered by an engine sourced from the general aviation sector. Meteor says it will also be available with a diesel engine alternative.

Meteor Aerospace

Meteor says its developmental design will be a cost-effective and flexible system, capable of operating with a wide range of sensors. The UAV has two spacious and easily accessible payload bays, it adds, with the forward one to carry electro-optical/infrared payloads and the rear for heavier equipment, such as a synthetic aperture radar/ground moving target indication capability. Retracting landing gear will ensure that belly-mounted sensors will have a wide and unobstructed field of view, it notes.

The company has not disclosed further details, but the Impact 1300 is likely to have an operating ceiling of 30,000ft, with a possible endurance of more than 30h, depending on its configuration.

Avionics, flight control and ground control systems are based on the company’s existing assets from the 730kg-class Impact 700 UAV, which is already in series production. Functions will include automatic takeoff and landing, and future growth options could include integrating large, heavy and high-power payloads and satellite communications equipment.

Company president Itzhak Nissan says the new MALE product will be unique in several ways. "We did not establish Meteor to do more of the same," he notes. "We are working to bring to the market new designs with exceptional capabilities."
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[*] posted on 16-8-2017 at 04:44 PM

Russia’s First MALE UAV Is Revealed

by Vladimir Karnozov - August 15, 2017, 7:23 AM

The Orion UAV was shown flying at the recent MAKS show—but only in this video. (Image: KT Group)

Russia’s first medium-altitude, long-endurance (MALE) UAV system was shown in part and in video at last month’s MAKS show near Moscow. But the privately owned Kronshtadt (KT) Group that displayed the Orion says that more than one example has flown, and the UAV is ready for production. KT has been developing it under a contract with the Russian MoD won in 2011. At MAKS, KT signed an agreement with Rosboronexport to market the Orion for export.

The recent publicity may have been prompted by KT’s need to raise funds to complete the project. IFK Sistema, a business chaired by a prominent Russian oligarch Vladimir Evtushenkov, acquired full control over KT in October 2015. But this group is now experiencing difficulties servicing its debts and investing in Orion, Fregat and other unmanned aviation ventures.

The initial version of Orion has a gross weight of 1,200 kg (2,600 pounds) and is designed for reconnaissance only. But an armed version could be developed, claimed KT’s chief executive officer Armen Isaakyan. KT said that during the past five years since the Orion project began in earnest, it has managed to form a capable industrial team and “developed technologies that never before existed in this country…and those we could not procure from the West.” According to Isaakyan, a number of prototypes have flown and they have proved the advertised flight performance.

KT revealed only limited data about the Orion: a payload of 200 kg (440 pounds); maximum altitude of 7,500 meters (24,750 feet); an operational radius of 250 km (135 nm); and an endurance of up to 24 hours. Moreover, only an incomplete airframe was shown at MAKS; it was lacking its right wing plus a handful of  components. The UAV has a similar appearance to the American MQ-1 Predator, with a wingspan estimated at 50 feet and carbon-fiber fuselage with load-bearing structure made using modern diffusion-bonding techniques. The Orion’s onboard systems are electric-only, with no pneumatics or hydraulics. KT did not release any information on the powerplant, which appears to be a supercharged diesel driving a pusher propeller.  

The Orion features an electro-impulse de-icing system and other innovative solutions enabling it to operate in “an extended area of climatic conditions, including the extreme North.” It is likely to come equipped with high-speed satcom using a 600-mm (23.6-inch) parabolic antenna operating in 11-15 kHz wideband, which KT exhibited at MAKS 2017, saying that ground trials will start in September.

The video shows the first prototype equipped with a gyro-stabilized turret under the forward fuselage, housing electro-optics operating in the visual and infrared spectrums. There are high-resolution cameras mounted in the mid-fuselage.

Alternatively, the Orion can carry AESA radar for mapping and target detection, plus equipment for locating hostile air defense and radio-emitting objects. Collected data is fed in real time to a road-transportable container serving as control post managing four to six UAVs.

KT employs 1,300 and claims to have been in the high-tech market for a quarter of a century, with 10 years of experience in unmanned aerial and maritime systems. Rosboronexport said that there is demand for the Orion in Southeast Asia, the Middle East, Africa and Latin America, and revealed a broader plan to win “a substantial part of the global market for UAVs” with this and other designs.  

The Orion’s future is likely to be decided by Russian President Vladimir Putin, who attended a demonstration of the UAV behind closed doors.
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[*] posted on 16-8-2017 at 10:43 PM

Hybrid drones carry heavier payloads for greater distances

Startup’s gas-electric engines may pave way for package delivery and human flight.

Rob Matheson | MIT News Office

August 4, 2017

New hybrid gas-to-electric drones from MIT spinout Top Flight Technologies offer an order-of-magnitude increase in range, payload size, and power over battery-powered counterparts. The drones may pave the way for package delivery and human flight.

MIT alumnus Long Phan SM ’99, PhD ’12 is a technology innovator and entrepreneur with several engineering “firsts” under his belt.

In the mid-1990s, Phan helped build the Draper Small Autonomous Aerial Vehicle, the world’s first fully autonomous helicopter. While working on Wall Street in the early 2000s, he became an early pioneer of the high-frequency trading system, which consists of powerful computers that rapidly complete tons of trading transactions.

As co-founder, CEO, and chief technology officer of Top Flight Technologies, Phan is now one of the first entrepreneurs to commercialize hybrid gas-to-electric drones. The drones offer an order-of-magnitude increase in range, payload size, and power over battery-powered counterparts.

Coming to market this fall, the hybrid drones could help make drone package-delivery a reality, and enhance capabilities for crop imaging, military surveillance, emergency response, and remote infrastructure inspection, among other applications. As the startup continues to develop hybrid drone power sources, the technology could also pave the way for human flight.
“The key is having an abundance of power and total energy.

That’s what petrol and  gasoline gives you,” Phan says. “Using a high-energy-density energy source like gasoline, and converting it to electric power, and doing it efficiently, gives you the equivalent of a ‘super battery.’”

Many drones run on batteries, flying for 15 to 30 minutes between charges, with maximum payloads of 5 pounds. Top Flight’s drone can fly for more than 2.5 hours ­— enabling ranges of up to 100 miles — while carrying up to 20 pounds.

The drone can be customized for any number of industrial-strength applications. The engine weighs about 17 pounds and can generate up to 10 kilowatts of power. It uses gasoline to generate the power that drives the lift motors, keeps backup batteries charged, and powers onboard electronics including computing, sensors, and communications equipment. The onboard batteries never need recharging; users just need to refill the gas tank and fly again. Flight control can operate in fully-or semi-autonomous modes.

With the hiring of several MIT alumni, the startup is quietly developing a 100-kilowatt hybrid drone that can lift 100 kilograms — enough to carry a human or two — for up to three hours. NASA, Uber, and many aerospace companies worldwide are currently working on building air taxis, small autonomous planes that will shuttle people around in big cities. But, Phan says, these can stay airborne for only about 10 minutes. Top Flight’s technologies will make them more practical for hauling people from hub to hub.

“With a 100-kilowatt hybrid electric engine, concepts like air taxis become viable,” he says. “By 2020, you may see a drone fly a person.”

“A Toyota Prius for the sky”

Top Flight’s story began in the late 2000s, when Phan was recalled to MIT twice to solve different engineering problems — both times leading to startups.

In 2009, Phan’s former advisor Sanjay Sarma, now the Fred Fort Flowers and Daniel Fort Flowers Professor in Mechanical Engineering and vice president for open learning, asked him to enroll in a PhD program to work on wide area thermal imaging.

Phan’s research became a core of Phan and Sarma’s startup Essess, which deploys cars with thermal-imaging rooftop rigs that create heat maps of homes and buildings to detect energy leaks.

In 2014, Robert Shin, head of the Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance and Tactical Systems Division at MIT Lincoln Laboratory, approached Phan and asked him to help solve the payload and endurance problems for drones.

Phan and other MIT researchers took a shot at the problem by conceptualizing and designing microscale hybrid electric-gas engines for drones. “We said, ‘What if we build a Toyota Prius for the sky?’” Phan says, laughing.

Hybrid electric engines are easier to build in cars, because, among other things, there are fewer weight and volume restraints. Engines on drones must be small and lightweight while delivering the same amount of power. This produces major technical challenges with excessive vibration and heat. “Often the engine will literally melt because you’re running it so hot,” Phan says.

Using various heat transfer and control techniques — such as strategically incorporating small fans, cooling fins, and rubber vibration dampeners — the team solved those issues and initially slapped a prototype hybrid engine on a generic drone.

Their calculations predicted the hybrid drone would fly for an hour — but it flew for nearly 2.5 hours.

“The lightbulb went off,” Phan says. “We were like, ‘What else can you do with a drone that can fly for hours?’”

Phan founded the startup in 2014, along with Sarma and other MIT engineers, and set up operations in a remote-controlled helicopter hobby shop in Malden, Massachusetts, before opening a separate headquarters in that city in 2016. A couple of funding rounds pushed them past $2 million of early venture funding by 2015.

Over the past several years, Top Flight has continued to develop major innovations for the microscale hybrid engine concept, called a “digital gearbox.” Engines for vertical takeoff aircraft, such as helicopters, are complex and difficult to manage, consisting of thousands of mechanical parts.

Top Flight’s digital gearbox behaves like those systems but uses electricity to control everything. Gasoline runs to a small generator, creating electric power, which the digital gearbox controls and sends in pulses to the electric motors and electronics. This makes the powering flight much simpler and more efficient, Phan says.

“By pulsing the electricity to the motors, we can control the amount of torque and revolutions per minute of the motor,” Phan says.

“We can … achieve the same benefits as a traditional mechanical transmission system, but it’s much more efficient, cost-effective, and scalable.”

Cruising in agile aerospace

Today, Top Flight operates in what it calls “agile aerospace 2.0,” a term representing the valuable vertical range for drones and microsatellites starting from the ground level and rising to 400 feet. Flying closer to the ground means greatly enhanced imaging and sensing resolutions, and other capabilities, such as communications. “If you go outside today, there’s virtually nothing happening in agile aerospace,” Phan says. “But it makes the most sense [for] air taxis or inspecting power lines, or doing logistics or delivery.”

Immediate applications for Top Flight’s drone capabilities may include inspecting infrastructure in remote areas. Some U.S. utilities companies are already tasking drones with inspecting power lines and pipelines that go without routine inspection due to their remote locations. Top Flight’s drones could greatly increase the range of those drones while reducing costs and improving worker safety. They could also help pre- and post-disaster recovery efforts by surveying damage to the networks after natural disasters.

As for delivery drones, Phan says Top Flight can increase the overall value related to increased range. Amazon, Google, UPS, and other large international firms are developing drone-based solutions that can deliver packages to consumer doorsteps. But they’re restricted to carrying, say, a single textbook and maybe 30 minutes of battery life, limiting their range.

“By increasing the range by an order of magnitude, you can capture 100 times more value, due to the increased area coverage, compared to traditional battery drone systems,” Phan says. “[Delivery drones] are not just a gimmick. They’re very feasible soon.”

Top Flight’s drones also hold promise for improved military missions, Phan says. A flock of 1,000 small drones could be deployed for longer times to gather reconnaissance data at a cost similar that of a single large military aircraft.

When Top Flight completes its 100-kilowatt hybrid electric engine, that same concept could also be used to haul, say, barrels of oil, divided into smaller amounts for military convoys in dangerous zones. Generally, this type of shipping is expensive and hazardous due to transportation costs and various risks on the road. “Instead of carrying really big loads in the tons, you use many drones to carry small loads in the 100-kilogram increments, like a pack of mules,” Phan says.

Currently, Top Flight uses an internal combustion engine in its microscale hybrid power systems. Moving forward, the company aims to hybridize gas turbine engines, which are used to power jets and helicopters. “Heat and vibration issues will be magnified, but at the same time they’re much more powerful and almost 100 percent more energy efficient than comparably-sized internal combustion engines,” Phan says. “That’s our next challenge.”
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