Sponsored by The British Robotics Seed Fund
13 Jan 22. ZEVA Successfully Completes Historic First Test Flight. ZEVA, a pioneer in zero-emission electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft transportation, successfully achieved its first untethered, powered, controlled flight test for its full-scale ZEVA ZERO flying wing airframe utilizing its eight zero-emission electric motor-driven propellers. The major milestone for the Tacoma-based startup was captured in this new video in rural Pierce County, Washington, on Sunday, January 9th, 2022 as part of its rigorous test program to achieve FAA airworthiness certification.
The uncrewed ZEVA demonstration aircraft completed four flights, totaling more than four minutes of controlled hovering, simulated taxiing maneuvers at slow speeds, and limited vertical climb maneuvers. Its compact airframe is designed for a single pilot and is small enough to fit in a standard automobile parking space. The vehicle is projected to cruise at speeds of up to 160 mph with a range of up to 50 miles, optimizing point-to-point travel.
“This is a huge inflection point for ZEVA as we join an exclusive set of proven flying eVTOL platforms, and a testament to the relentless hard work and ingenuity of our entire team over the past two and half years,” said Stephen Tibbitts, CEO and Chairman of ZEVA. “We are dissecting our learnings from our critical first taxiing flight, which is a direct result of the support we’ve received from our investors and community, leading us to bring in additional talent to spearhead this historic moment. We are eager to continue to our next stage of hover flight testing on our road to certification and eventual autonomous flight allowing anyone, not just pilots, to access zero-emission point-to-point travel.”
ZEVA experienced tremendous growth this year, with the addition of Gus Meyer as flight control engineer and several other key hires. The team completed more than 50 successful tethered flights, showcased the ZEVA ZERO aircraft at the Dubai Air Show in November, and was awarded a grant by Washington’s Joint Center for Aerospace Technology Innovation (JCATI) to work with Washington State University on ZEVA Aero’s aerodynamic configurations to optimize the vehicle’s thrust and controls. ZEVA has also worked with NASA in conjunction with its Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge.
“The ZEVA team has done an incredible job with the design and manufacturing of this aircraft, which was evidenced in this exceptionally smooth and successful first flight,” said Gus Meyer, the test pilot controlling the ZERO via a remote radio link. “This achievement is also a testament to the extraordinary talent and experience of the team, and the supportive partnerships that helped make this a reality.”
ZEVA will continue hover flight tests and advance to transition flight testing this spring to fine-tune the unique Superman-like trajectory of the aircraft design. The patent-pending design is expected to be available for pre-order for consumers for a $5,000 deposit as early as spring of this year, with an eventual price tag for the first production units estimated at under $250,000.
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ZEVA is bringing personal air transportation to everyone with an affordable, electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) aircraft called the ZERO. The Tacoma, Washington startup launched in 2017. ZEVA’s founding team delivers decades of experience leading teams of engineers and managing multi-million dollar R&D budgets to develop and mass-produce electronics at both start-ups and multinational corporations. (Source: BUSINESS WIRE)
10 Jan 22. Volansi and Sierra Nevada Corporation Partner for US Army Future Tactical Systems Program. Volansi, the Silicon Valley-based autonomous drone logistics company and Sierra Nevada Corporation (SNC), the global aerospace national security company, announced a teaming agreement and partnership in support of the Army Future Tactical Unmanned Systems Increment 2 (FTUAS) Program. Based off Volansi’s design of a commercial unmanned aircraft and SNC’s turnkey Intelligence, Surveillance, Reconnaissance (ISR) integration, the Volansi/SNC Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) platform was recently selected as one of the potential offerings for the U.S. Army FTUAS program for its redundancy and durability. Volansi’s VTOL aircraft only require a small operational footprint, eliminating the need for runways, catapults, or infrastructure and can operate in challenging terrain and contested environments.
“We are proud to be a part of this Army effort,” said Volansi CEO, Will Roper. “Combining the best know-how of highly reputable defense companies, like Sierra Nevada Corporation, with a Silicon Valley-based startup is an innovation formula I encouraged while in government. It unlocks the full potential of the U.S. industrial base for our warfighters.”
“We are honored to work with key partner, Volansi to provide the US Army a Multi-Domain Operations ready FTUAS solution, blending the best of commercial innovation with SNC’s unprecedented turnkey ISR pedigree,”stated SNC’s Executive Vice President, Tim Owings. (Source: UAS VISION)
10 Jan 22. Unmanned maritime vessels: Military gamechanger or expensive prototype? Findings from the littoral combat ship (LCS) in the United States, a vessel that boasts a streamlined crew of 40 members, has demonstrated that reduced upkeep while at sea has led to higher maintenance costs on land and more damaged equipment. Will unmanned maritime vessels prove a gamechanger at sea or simply an expensive mistake?
Simple, cheap and deadly unmanned systems have already proven a gamechanger on the modern battlefield. One need look no further than the recent Armenia-Azerbaijan conflict to see how military commanders have seamlessly integrated unmanned systems into the modern threat environment, and how such simple and inexpensive systems have caused operational-strategic level impacts (see how Azerbaijan allegedly destroyed Armenia’s famed Iskander air defence systems here).
Unmanned systems have yet to reach their apotheosis. Teaming projects like the Loyal Wingman seek to bring unheralded human-robot symbiosis into the conventional battlespace, while the Orca project seeks to introduce the unmanned system into the remarkably challenging submarine domain.
However, while such smaller unmanned systems have already revolutionised the battlefield, recent attempts by the US Navy to mitigate their reliance on crews and embark on the era of unmanned ships has yet to prove successful.
Unmanned systems, still years away
According to Jonathan Panter and Jonathan Falcone in War on the Rocks in December, the US Navy’s littoral combat ships have evidenced the disastrous impact of a premature transition from crewed to uncrewed systems.
Simply, the pair explain that reducing the number of sailors onboard maritime vessels while at sea has led to a greater reliance on even costlier cutting-edge technology and has also resulted in equipment breakdowns going unnoticed.
“While the LCS is not unmanned, it is further on the unmanned spectrum than any other US Navy vessel in operational use, making it the closest real-world test case for future surface fleet architecture,” the pair note of the LCS.
“First, replacing sailors with technology reduced maintenance at the operator level, but increased it at the regional maintenance centre and original equipment manufacturer levels. This raised costs overall, meaning fewer platforms could be purchased.
“Second, minimal manning made platforms less resilient. Fewer sailors meant fewer problems spotted, and less capacity to fix them while underway.”
Unsurprisingly, complex ships require experts at sea to monitor and oversee the operational capabilities of the ship’s systems. If those experts are not onboard, the LCS or unmanned vessels would require difficult at-sea support from nearby vessels.
“But removing personnel from ships also means something else: more complex technical systems. Any unmanned piece of equipment is usually more complex than a manned machine assigned to do an equivalent task. This can make routine and corrective maintenance more costly, and also carries hidden costs by way of the high-level training required to conduct maintenance,” the pair contend.
Although, not everyone shares the pair’s scepticism toward unmanned maritime vessels.
Michael Shoebridge, director of the defence, strategy and national security program at the Australian Strategic Policy Institute (ASPI), argues that the government should consider procuring the ‘Orca’ — an extra-large unmanned undersea vehicle developed by Boeing and Huntington Ingalls Industries for the US Navy.
Five Orcas are scheduled to be built by the end of 2022 as part of a US$274m ($354m) contract signed in 2019.
“The unmanned submarine has a range of about 6,500 nautical miles (12,000 kilometres) and can perform dangerous, dirty and dull work like intelligence-gathering, surveillance and deployment of other systems (such as smart sea mines), with a development path up to and including deployment of other weapons to attack adversary ships, submarines and other systems,” Shoebridge writes.
“They will probably work best as part of a manned–unmanned undersea team, less closely tethered but a bit like the rapidly developed ‘Loyal Wingman’ unmanned aerial vehicle that the Royal Australian Air Force is developing and testing with Boeing Australia.”
Shoebridge concedes that there would be “plenty to work out” to ensure the Royal Australian Navy can operate Orcas effectively, but notes there’s a “practical limit” to how much planning and preparation can be done with experiments and demonstrations.
“Concepts for use and ways to resolve difficult problems like tasking and controlling undersea systems will be resolved much faster once navy personnel get their hands on live systems; that’s what’s happened throughout the history of warfare,” he writes.
The ASPI analyst proposes that the RAN collaborates with US Navy, along with US and Australian industrial partners, to develop the Orca, adding that this would “bring the most undersea combat power most quickly to Australia’s military”.
He continues: “It’s also the best way for Defence to create new challenges for adversaries that are thinking of coercing Australia or increasing their military presence in Australia’s near region.”
Shoebridge goes on to write that Orcas working with upgraded Collins Class submarines would “change the calculus around Australian defence” ahead of the delivery of the next-generation fleet.
This, he claims, would also ensure that Australia’s future fleet of submarines and its crews are “designed and prepared” to operate with unmanned systems. Shoebridge argues that Defence has an opportunity to negotiate an attractive deal for the Orca with Boeing, with its commercial business severely impacted by travel restrictions imposed in response to the COVID-19 pandemic.
While there is significant evidence to suggest that unmanned systems such as the Orca will greatly enhance Australia’s strategic capabilities and forward posture, Panter and Falcone nevertheless demonstrate that the reduction of sailors onboard the LCS resulted in cost overruns and destruction of vessels as malfunctioning parts were left unattended.
“With time, the projected life-cycle cost savings slowly began to diminish as core crew numbers increased by 25 per cent, and the number of required shore-support personnel tripled,” the pair argued.
“With fewer sailors onboard to inspect engineering spaces, for example, one hull type suffered repeated engine casualties that simply went unnoticed.”
However, while it is hoped that greater digitisation of naval vessels would minimise this ongoing threat, the US Navy is facing largescale funding issues with an aging fleet and competing priorities.
According to Reuters, the Defense Authorization Act 2022 has provided sufficient funding to the US Navy to purchase “13 battle force ships including two Virginia Class submarines made by Huntington Ingalls (HII.N) and General Dynamics (GD.N) and three DDG 51 Arleigh Burke destroyers also made by General Dynamics”.
The act further provides $7.1bn to support US operations in the Indo-Pacific as part of the Pacific Deterrent Initiative (an increase of some $2.1bn). The investment is expected to support US capabilities in the region, including the defence of Guam, which some analysts have suggested is over reliant on disconnected missile systems for defence.
While the act does provide provisions for the development of further naval capabilities and protection of US naval bases, not all military analysts appear content with the House and Senate armed services committee’s budgetary recommendations with a sub-optimal allocation in budgetary funds.
It has been revealed by numerous media outlets that the committee provided funding for an additional 12 Boeing Super Hornets, despite the Pentagon arguing that none should be purchased as they will be unable to overcome the threats posed by the modern fighter aircraft used by the US’ adversaries. Rather, the capital could be redirected into researching and developing sixth-generation fighter aircraft.
Despite the relatively modest price tag of the Orca and other unmanned systems, the US Navy’s competing priorities may result in a diminishing willingness from some in the military to take a gamble on unmanned technology at sea after lessons from the LCS scenario.
How autonomous would such systems be?
The degree of autonomy under which unmanned systems should operate has caused widespread debate among military and academic sources.
There appears no shortage of evidence to suggest that the automation of decision matrices driven by all available information and data for unmanned weapons systems could enhance a Commander’s judgement. Indeed, even von Clausewitz himself noted that war “is wrapped in a fog of greater or lesser uncertainty.”
One of the greatest examples of which came in 1988 when the USS Vincennes shot down an Iranian passenger jet. It was later determined that the operator – rather than the semi-automated Aegis weapons system – was in control.
Nevertheless, while many in the industry and country at large may be willing to automate weapons systems yet further, such zeal may not be evidenced among military commanders who would be held liable if autonomous weapons systems under their control commit war crimes.
In fact, the US Department of Defense directive 3000.09 outlined that military commanders at all times must have “appropriate levels of human judgement” over decisions undertaken by autonomous systems, hopefully mitigating machine-determined violations of jus in bello. (Source: Defence Connect)
10 Jan 22. Joby’s second prototype aircraft obtains FAA and USAF airworthiness approvals. Joby Aviation is under an Agility Prime contract with the US Air Force. US-based all-electric aircraft developer Joby Aviation’s second pre-production prototype aircraft has been granted airworthiness approvals. In December 2021, both the US Air Force (USAF) and the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) gave the Special Airworthiness Certificate and airworthiness approval, respectively, for the aircraft.
The new addition and approvals increase the capacity for the flight testing of the aircraft this year.
Joby founder and CEO JoeBen Bevirt said: “Our 2021 flight test programme delivered a wealth of information and experience to support our programme.
“With two aircraft flying at the same time, we’ll be able to increase the speed of our learnings as planned while continuing to fulfil the requirements of our Agility Prime contract.
“We’re grateful to the US Air Force for our ongoing relationship and support and to the FAA for continuing to foster innovation in the aviation industry.”
The company aims to introduce its electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) aircraft into commercial passenger service in 2024.
Bespoke harsh environment connector solutions set Omnetics apart from competitors
The eVTOL aircraft can cruise at a speed of 200mph with four passengers and a pilot and has a range of 150 miles. (Source: airforce-technology.com)
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