Sponsored by The British Robotics Seed Fund
24 Mar 20. Open source platforms, flexible airframes for new drones. Designing a drone body is about settling on the right compromise. Multirotor drones excel at vertical lift and hover, while fixed wing drones are great at both distance and wide-open spaces. In February, Auterion announced a two-pronged approach to the rotor- or fixed-wing drone market, with a pair of drones that use the same sensor packages and fuselage to operate as either the Scorpion Trirotor or the Vector fixed wing craft.
“As we started to develop our tactical UAS Platform, our plan was only to develop a VTOL fixed wing solution (like our Vector),” said Dave Sharpin, CEO of Auterion Government Solutions. “During the development process we decided to build a Tri-Copter Platform as well, as a result of many discussions with law enforcement agencies and Search and Rescue Units.”
Adapting the fixed-wing fuselage to the tri-copter attachments means the drone can now operate in narrow spaces and harsh conditions. Scorpion, with the rotors, can fly for about 45 minutes, with a cruising speed of zero to 33 mph. Put the fixed wings back on for Vector, and the flight time is now two hours, with a cruising speed of 33 to 44 mph.
The parts snap into place without any need for special tooling, and Auterion recommends the drone for missions in rain or snow. Both platforms share a gimbal EO/IR with 10x optical zoom, 720p EO video, 480p IR video, laser illuminator, IR laser ranger. Common between modes is also a tactical mapping tool using a 21 megapixel Sony UMC R10C camera. For the scorpion, there’s also the option of a gimbaled electro-optical camera with a 30x optical zoom.
Both drones are designed to fit in rucksacks that a person can carry one at a time. While many features are common across Vector and Scorpion, the plan is not to include both rotors or wings in the same kit. Once a team packs into the field with a drone on its back, that’s the mode the drone can be used in.
Auterion intends to ship the drones by the fourth quarter of 2020, with preorders available.
Designing a drone body is about settling on the right compromise. Vectr and Scorpion are built on top of open source code. This includes an operating system capable of programmable autopilot , as well as machine-vision collision prevention and obstacle detection and avoidance. Software for the ground station and cloud data management of the drone are also built on open source code. The Pentagon’s Defense Innovation Unit awarded the company a $2m contract last year to work on the PX4 software to help drive compatibility standards in the drone industry.
As militaries across the world look to the enterprise sector for capable drones at smaller profile than existing military models, transparency in code and flexibility in airframe could become more widely adopted trends. In the meantime, there is Vector, and there is Scorpion. (Source: C4ISR & Networks)
25 Mar 20. A new beginning? Next-gen USVs and the future of naval combat. The recent COVID-19 outbreak highlights the growing importance of food and fuel security to the Australian national interest. With much of the world’s sea transport passing through strategically important bottlenecks, the next-generation Thales/L3Harris counter-mine USV shows how unmanned technology is providing answers to difficult questions.
Roughly 90 per cent of the world’s trade is delivered by sea, including oil, food and medical supplies. Australia plays a crucial role in upholding maritime security interests in the Straits of Hormuz and the Gulf of Aden; closer to home, vital sea transport links to our largest trading partners cut directly through the South China Sea. For an isolated island nation, an awareness of maritime security threats and capability to effectively counter them are of paramount importance. Much has previously been made of the prevalence and relative cheapness of sea mines – for example when former Defence official Elizabeth White said in ASPI’s The Strategist:
“A sea mine is cheap, easy to use, and highly effective at blockading chokepoints. The simplest types of sea mines – variations on the classic spiky ball bobbing in the water – cost only a few thousand dollars but can stop shipping in its tracks.
“Close one or two of those [shipping lanes] down for any length of time, and we’ve got a serious problem on our hands. This fact is not lost on most major players – hence the military patrols, diplomatic negotiations and international conventions in place to try to mitigate risks to these vulnerable spots.”
The issue, as Defence Connect explained in detail, is essentially one of dollars and manpower. Even outside of the aircraft carrier space, surface and underwater manned vessels are one of the biggest investments a defence force makes financially, and they are subsequently stacked full of trained personnel on deployment. They are simply too big to lose, and counter measures have long been a thorn in the backside of military planners.
“Australian operations to support mine clearance in Kuwait after the first Gulf War in 1991, for example, stretched for almost five months, searched two square kilometres and dealt with 60 mines,” said White.
Reason to despair? Maybe not. Existential problems often serve as a catalyst for innovation. Though perhaps the most clichéd example, the Cold War set humankind off on a nuclear arms race, which then in the late 1960s saw American astronauts landing on the moon. Automation is being touted, by pop-culture icons like Elon Musk and Andrew Yang, to be the watershed technological breakthrough of our generation. It will almost certainly give rise to cheaper, more effective means of overcoming strategic challenges; and in a defence context, is already allowing coalition members to intervene in situations in the Middle East without having to risk putting boots on the ground.
“Soldiers are safer because they can send a UAS down a street, into an intersection or over a hill to have the first look, instead of a soldier – soldiers are safer today because of our UAS projects. Army is more effective because the images and data allow better, quicker decisions to be made by our mission commanders,” Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce told Australian Aviation.
However, in a maritime security capacity, the benefits of unmanned capabilities are increased tenfold, given immense distances covered by RAN operations and associated difficulties in terms of maritime intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance (ISR). It is for precisely this reason that the ADF has shown so much interest in supplementing the manned Boeing P-8A Poseidons with Northrup Grumman’s MQ-4C Triton. So much so, that we could even end up acquiring the UAVs sooner than expected under Project AIR 7000 Phase 1B, in response to a pause in US production.
So what of sea mines, then? Defence Connect recently reported that Thales and L3Harris have joined forces to deliver a new class of unmanned surface vessel (USV) aimed specifically at countering mines, in a world-first move. If all goes to plan, the first two of these USVs will enter service in 2020 with the French Marine Nationale and the British Royal Navy. When mines are located, the USV deploys a smaller, remotely operated vehicle, which can extinguish the threat without risking the more costly controlling vessel.
Compared with traditional methods of MCM, including the deployment of clearance divers, the cost-benefit ratio skews heavily in favour of the unmanned approach. This is, of course, not to mention the human risks involved. Though the ramifications are obvious for the future MCM, some will agree that this is but one example of how unmanned technology is overcoming barriers that were previously insurmountable. Some years or even months from now, acronyms like USV, UAS and UAV will dominate the strategic conversation.
Interestingly enough, Thales pulled no punches in the media briefing released concurrently with the announcement. The company suggested that there is “no reason why the technology can’t migrate into new markets and we’re open to approaches from interested parties”. If White’s words are anything to go by, we should be first in that queue.
In terms of the technology’s potential to ‘migrate’, however, it’s time to reflect seriously on the role unmanned tech will play in the RAN of the 2020s. If MCM imperatives have triggered the development of unmanned and/or partially automated systems, how long will it be before this technology is co-opted for anti-submarine warfare? If the RAN and RAAF acquire Northrop’s Triton drones on (or ahead of) schedule, what’s to stop this external ISR capability from expanding into other domains, like coastal or domestic surveillance?
Likewise, reliance on these technologies poses an entirely different set of questions for policymakers. In a geopolitical theatre driven by (largely) Sino-American tensions, can Australia really afford to rely on unmanned technologies that are produced by these countries? Can we afford to develop an addiction to the Triton drone, for example, down the line?
The 2016 Defence White Paper highlighted the Tritons as a capability priority. Hundreds of millions were then sunk into the necessary infrastructure to accommodate the drones, hundreds of millions more into the co-operative development program with the US, and only in the last few weeks is it clear that we will see much for the money – after the US DoD budget for FY2021 announced a two-year ‘production pause’.
While it seems no one can answer these questions conclusively, it’s time to start paying them some serious thought. (Source: Defence Connect)
24 Mar 20. Canadian Navy Prepares for Unmanned Aircraft Threats. To combat the growing unmanned aircraft threat, the Royal Canadian Navy is investigating the feasibility of employing Class 1 Rotary Wing Unmanned Aircraft Systems – Targets (UAS-T) on board HMC Ships.
The Snyper Mk2 UAS-T is one of these systems being tested. It is designed to simulate low and slow unmanned aircraft as a threat to warships in a maritime environment.
Four members of HMCS Calgary and two members of Canadian Fleet Pacific – Fleet Target Services West took turns deploying, flying, and landing the UAS-T at Albert Head’s Grenade Range a few weeks ago.
“The intention is to train operators to fly the UAS-T for use at sea,” said Chief Petty Officer Second Class Gordon Dolbec, CANFLTPAC SO Targets. “This will allow HMC Ships to work on developing force protection tactics to counter the growing UAS threat.”
The navy has purchased 12 Snyper Mk2 UAS-Ts from QinetiQ Target Systems Canada, splitting them equally between the coasts. Eight will serve as targets for live-fire training using the ship’s weapons and sensor systems and small arms; the other four will be used primarily for surveillance and high-resolution imagery and video, a capability that was previously only available through a maritime helicopter.
Eventually, all five West Coast frigates will have someone on the ship trained to operate the Snyper Mk2 UAS-T. East Coast ships have already used them as a tool for taking imagery and video during at-sea training events.
CPO2 Dolbec says the controls and technology are complex, so extensive operational training is necessary.
“It’s all about skills and familiarity because it’s not an easy thing to fly and takes plenty of time and practice,” said CPO2 Dolbec. “When you work with someone who starts flying one for the first time, they often get nervous because it’s something they aren’t used to doing.”
The Snyper Mk2 weighs approximately 13 kilograms and has six propellers powered by six battery-operated engines. The technology is portable, with the rotors and landing gear collapsible, easily folding into a suitcase-sized pelican case.
When assembled, it can reach speeds of 33 kilometres an hour, has a maximum altitude of 18,000 feet and an overall range up to eight kilometres. However, based on the newly established National Defence Flying Orders for UAS systems, it is limited to operating below 300 feet above ground level and must remain within the visual line of the operator with not less than two statute miles ground visibility.
The UAS-T has three control components. The first is a hand controller, which is the primary flight controller, similar in appearance to joystick. It controls the UAS-T’s forward and backward movements (pitch), left and right (roll), heading (yaw), and throttle, allowing it to climb or descend.
The second is a ground control station consisting of a laptop that provides all in-flight monitoring of the UAS-T’s systems, plots flight paths, and records flight data for analysis. A third controller allows the operator to manipulate on the on-board camera for surveillance and high resolution photos and video.
To assist CPO2 Dolbec and his colleagues at Fleet Target Services West in teaching sailors how to use the UAS-T, there is a Master Seaman target manager and two sailors from HMCS Vancouver that have been loaned to the unit to be trained as UAS-T instructors.
The Snyper Mk2 UAS-T doesn’t come cheap, with each system costing approximately $21,000; surveillance units cost more because of the upgraded onboard camera equipment.
If the UAS-T crashes or has a hard landing causing damage it will be sent back to QinetiQ Target Systems Canada for repair or even replacement, which is why taking time to properly train operators and instructors is key, says Chief Dolbec.
He adds, while that may seem expensive, it is the only solution to train sailors in this warfare, and will save lives and damage to the ship.
“There are going to be some accidents that will result in damage to the UAS-T as people familiarize themselves with a capability that is very new to the RCN,” said CPO2 Dolbec. “Our main focus is to keep everyone safe, so instead of taking giant leaps forward in rolling out this capability, the best practice is to take small steps to get where we want to be in terms of training, operations and flight safety.” (Source: UAS VISION/ Lookout)
20 Mar 20. Argentine companies present rotary-wing UAV. Argentine companies Cicaré, INVAP, and Marinelli have presented for the first time a prototype of the Asteri RUAS 160, a rotary-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) designed for the defence, security, and agriculture markets.
The presentation took place at the Expoagro agriculture fair, held in San Nicolás, Buenos Aires province, from 10-11 March.
The Asteri consists of a helicopter with counter-rotating rotors of 3.1m in diameter and no tail rotor. Powered by a 40 hp two-stroke gasoline engine, the Asteri has a cargo capacity of 80 kg and a maximum take-off weight of 160 kg (its empty weight is 80 kg).
The project is intended to develop an unmanned system applicable to military and search-and-rescue missions, but also appropriate for agricultural use, for which a module is added to the platform. Currently, the project remains at the prototype and development stage.
“We are innovating on this version to make improvements and adaptations to the different needs that this technology may have,” said Juan Manuel Cicaré, president of Cicaré Helicópteros. “We are thinking that by 2021 we could be offering it to the market.”
Cicaré claimed that the Asteri “can have a purchase price of only 40-50% the cost of similar systems with electric engines, which are limited in endurance”.
The Asteri is the result of work between helicopter factory Cicaré and Marinelli, which specialises in precision agriculture, that began in 2017. However, the two companies signed an agreement with industrial technology firm INVAP in 2019 to further develop the project. (Source: Jane’s)
22 Mar 20. China’s latest Haiyi underwater gliders complete Indian Ocean deployment. Upgraded Haiyi (Sea Wing) underwater gliders deployed from a Chinese government scientific research vessel on 11 December 2019 have successfully conducted an underwater survey expedition in the East Indian Ocean, the company responsible for manufacturing the gliders announced in late March. The Tianjin-based Deepfar Ocean Technology Company (Deepfar) claimed that all 12 of its second-generation Haiyi long-range gliders deployed as part of the Ministry of Natural Resources’ (MNR’s) Joint Advanced Marine and Ecological Studies (JAMES) expedition were recovered by the state-owned survey/research ship Xiang Yang Hong 06 on 30 January, representing a cumulative 550 days of continuous operations at sea and a completed navigational distance of more than 6,479 n miles.
“The 12 Haiyi gliders – equipped with a variety of biological, hydrological, and chemical sensors – performed a co-operative survey within a 300×300 n mile observation area,” the company said in a statement. “[The gliders also] logged more than 3,400 survey profiles and obtained large amounts of hydrological data including temperature, salinity, turbidity, and oxygen content.”
According to Sublue, marine observation data collected by the gliders was transmitted by Xiang Yang Hong 06 to shore-based command centres via satellite communications (satcom), enabling scientists to examine the dynamic interactions and processes of underwater phenomena in real-time.
The research vessel subsequently returned to port in the eastern city of Zhoushan on 12 March, marking the conclusion of the JAMES expedition.
Comparable in physical form to the US-made Teledyne Webb Slocum gliding autonomous underwater vehicle (AUV), the Haiyi features a torpedo-shaped main body constructed from aluminium alloy or carbon fibre composite material and features a pair of swept wings.
The nose of the pressure hull contains the underwater glider’s buoyancy engine and depth control systems, with the mission payload and control unit located in the middle. (Source: Jane’s)
24 Mar 20. USN adopts modular approach for SUUV programme. The US Department of Defense (DoD) has moved ahead with efforts to introduce a new unmanned underwater vehicle (UUV) capability for the US Navy (USN) following the selection of two prototypes for further testing.
The DoD’s Defense Innovation Unit (DIU) awarded two separate contracts for industry to supply prototype UUVs and mission-specific payloads for USN evaluation under the Next Generation Small-Class UUV (SUUV) programme.
This programme will provide a common baseline small UUV that could be easily configured to fulfil the requirements of several USN user communities. According to the DoD’s fiscal year (FY) 2021 budget request, delivery of prototypes will occur within the second quarter of the FY.
Flexibility in platform configuration, the ability to integrate third-party sensors, autonomy software, and variety in power sources were some of the desired attributes outlined by the DoD.
Hydroid announced in February 2020 that it had delivered a prototype REMUS 300 UUV to the USN for evaluation under the SUUV effort.
The REMUS 300 has a diameter of 190 mm and measures between 1,850 to 2,510 mm long – with a dry weight of about 36 to 58 kg – depending on its configuration. It maintains a comparable diameter with the smaller REMUS 100 but offers an increased depth rating of 305 m.
The UUV features field-changeable, environmentally sealed energy modules that enable operators to customise its endurance depending on the mission requirements. It typically travels at speeds between 3 to 4 kt but this can be increased to 8 kt by using high-speed thrusters, while a modular and open architecture facilitates the integration of new payloads, sensors, and algorithms.
Optional equipment can include a larger energy module for extended missions as well as additional data storage. (Source: Jane’s)
The British Robotics Seed Fund is the first SEIS-qualifying investment fund specialising in UK-based robotics businesses. The focus of the fund is to deliver superior returns to investors by making targeted investments in a mixed basket of the most innovative and disruptive businesses that are exploiting the new generation of robotics technologies in defence and other sector applications.
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The fund appoints expert mentors to work with each investee company to further maximise the chance of success for investors. Further details are available on request.