I spend a lot of time checking out the latest technology at various trade shows. The International CES in Las Vegas each January is fun, and the Embedded Systems Conference has the latest hardware and software.
But the annual Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI) show, held Aug. 16-19 in Washington, D.C., is best at highlighting really amazing innovation. Technologies like unmanned aerial vehicles (AUVs), now known as unmanned aerial systems (UASs) according to the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), require a demanding mix of electronics, mechanics, and software. Besides, they’re so much fun to watch unless you’re on the receiving end of a Hellfire missile.
Often the prototypes are where you really find innovation. Take Lockheed Martin’s Samarai (Fig. 1). It runs off a tiny Gumstix module (see “A Pack Of Gumstix” at electronicdesign.com). Its spinning motion causes the fixed digital camera to spin as well. Instead of trying to provide a stable camera platform, Lockheed Martin uses photo stitching software to knit the video stream into a 360° world view. The monocopter is an impressive combination of computation, microelectromechanical systems (MEMS) accelerometers, and gyros.
More AUVSI Highlights
Prototypes frequently are designed to show off real products. HDT Robotics’ MK-1 is built from multiple force-feedback servos that snap together. The servos allow the system lift 50 lb and to detect when the arms bump into an obstacle so they can be stopped before destroying the obstacle. The connectors on either end of the modular servos pass through power, a CAN bus, and Ethernet. The robotic arms also have hands with an even more delicate touch.
There were many electric micro-UAVs like Prioria Robotics’ Maveric (Fig. 2) and Aurora Flight Sciences’ Skate VTOL (Fig. 3) at the show. The Maveric uses composite materials and a flexible wing that allows it to be stored in a 6-in. cylinder. It can even be launched from a vehicle-mountable cylinder. The Skate folds up to a similar size but assembly is required, including the engines held in place by magnets.
Both have advanced on-board avionics that can provide autonomous operation. They are also designed for field repair using inexpensive materials like tape and glue. It may not look pretty, but it gets the UAV back into the air quickly. Further, their modular design enables batteries, payloads, and control systems to be quickly swapped. A new vehicle can take flight minutes after it has landed.
AeroVironment’s Nano HummingBird is an impressive research platform that weighs less than 20 g, including a tiny camera hidden in its neck (Fig. 4). It can fly as fast as 11 mph. Its tiny on-board computer flaps its wings, providing flight in any direction and the ability to hover. The wings simply pivot, but the amount and position affect how the nano UAV flies.
Qinetiq’s Dragon Runner 10 rugged micro unmanned ground vehicles (MUGVs) are smaller than their older siblings. These 10-lb robots have handles so they can be thrown through a second-story window. They also run right-side up or upside down, and the cameras switch orientation automatically. One of the two on-board cameras can pivot so the robot can drive under a car and look for items in the underbody.
Swapping tracks for wheels takes a few minutes, as does mounting any number of payloads on Picatinny rails such as the arm with gripper and tools for improvised explosive device (IED) removal. The entire system fits in a rucksack.
All of these robots run on batteries, which means they’re quiet but have limited operation time. Improved battery technology shows up in these platforms each year, along with more advanced sensor suites and autopilots.
You can check out video interviews I did at AUVSI for these vehicles and many more on Engineering TV. You really need to see these robots in action.