Autonomous Aircraft To Help Fight Fires

Wildland fires are currently destroying many natural forested areas of the United States. These huge fires spread over natural terrain very rapidly and are difficult to control because they occur in remote areas, often burning everything in sight. Many people have lost their mountain homes due to wildland fires, and firefighters are having a difficult time controlling the fires from spreading further during the hot summer months. One weapon used against wildland firefighters is the heavy air tanker aircraft. Air tankers are designed to carry heavy payloads and when air tankers are used in wildland firefighting, they are equipped to carry enormous payloads of water or fire retardant to the location of the wildland fire and then drop their payload on the area of the fire as they fly overhead. Air tankers are invaluable in the fight against wildfires and are in high demand during fire season. Two companies, Thrush and Drone America, have teamed together to develop an autonomous air tanker that can be used to drop water and fire retardant on wildland fires while being piloted robotically. The autonomous air tanker is an enhancement of other drone-like aircraft currently in use by law enforcement and fire fighters. Current autonomous aircraft are used to monitor wildland fires from an aerial viewpoint, search for hot spots that may reignite, and photograph the spread of fires over time. Dropping a payload autonomously has significant benefits for emergency workers, however. Primarily, keeping pilots out of dangerous situations and flying over dangerous terrain is beneficial from a personnel standpoint. Also, autonomous aircraft have the benefit of being able to fly during the night time and navigate terrain successfully using onboard sensors. Since temperatures are usually lower at night, fires tend not to spread as quickly when the sun goes down, allowing autonomous air tankers to drop water and fire retardant on fires when they are less prone to spread. Plans for development are still under consideration, and teams from both companies are exploring other uses for autonomous aircraft as well. -taken from www.dronelife.com

EV Battery Technology Shows Promise

A French company is currently developing a new energy storage device that may potentially see itself in electric vehicles. The company, called NAWA (short for NAno technology to fight against global Warming), is currently developing “ultra-capacitors” for use as storage devices that can be rapidly charged and discharged to match demands from electric vehicles. The ultra-capacitors are aiming to help some of the current limitations put on electric car batteries such as poor energy density and limitations on charging and discharging. The ultra-capacitors will be designed to be extremely efficient and may eventually have energy densities that rival current lithium celled batteries. Currently, the ultra-capacitors have superior energy density to current capacitor based energy storage and much better efficiency. NAWA is developing the ultra-capacitors using a state of the art technique that aligns series of carbon nanotubes in rows to allow the electrons to pass through the capacitor with limited resistance. A good analogy to the alignment of the nanotubes is to consider the uniform positioning of bristles on a toothbrush, providing a direct route for the electrons to travel through the ultra-capacitor. Two current issues with electric vehicles that are concerning for would-be consumers deal with the allowable range that electric vehicles are limited to, and how to charge the vehicle when the battery is drained. The new ultra-capacitors aim to help these two issues by allowing for current electric vehicle batteries to be lighter in weight, more efficient, and able to take a recharge more quickly. To deal with vehicle range limitations and rapid recharging, the carbon ultra-capacitors will supplement current lithium batteries with superior energy density and the ability to regenerate charge through vehicle decelerations, otherwise known as regenerative braking. Current regenerative braking is not very efficient, mostly because the battery cells cannot recouperate from such rapid recharging. New carbon ultra-capacitors will be able to accommodate the rapid recharging that occurs by regenerative braking, thus recollecting otherwise lost energy. Rapid charging will also be possible when using batteries enhanced with the new carbon ultra-capacitors, therefore reducing the amount of time spent waiting for an electric vehicle’s battery to be recharged. NAWA’s ultra-capacitors are still under development, but plans for testing in automotive applications is scheduled within the next five years. -taken from www.sae.org

BMW Developing Carbon Fiber Components

The use of carbon fiber in vehicle applications is not a new concept, however the cost of manufacturing components made from carbon fiber is typically the limiting factor in its usage. Carbon fiber is a very strong, stiff, carbon based material that can be molded into complex shapes. Once carbon fiber is formed into its end shape, it is very lightweight and can surpass the strength to weight ratio of many competing metals, such as many grades of aluminum and steel. BMW has used carbon fiber in their vehicles and motorcycles throughout the years because it provides obvious engineering advantages for strength and weight, and it is also considered a premium material with a history of usage in motorsports racing. BMW recently ceased production of carbon fiber components for undisclosed reasons. This decision was met by the automotive industry as indicating that BMW’s carbon fiber production was not profitable. However, BMW insisted that carbon-based component production would continue through other avenues. One such avenue that was recently unveiled was the development of a carbon fiber reinforced plastic (CFRP) motorcycle swing arm. The swing arm was developed with seven joint partners as a demonstration of a new manufacturing process termed “resin transfer molding”. The swing arm is incredibly light and strong, and has won 2018 JEC Innovation Award for its production method and end result. BMW stated that they chose to model a swing arm using resin transfer molding to demonstrate the effectiveness of the technology on a part that sees continuous stress during normal usage. The motorcycle swing arm utilizes short carbon fibers in locations on the swing arm that require localized strength. For location of the swing arm that requires elongated stiffness, long fibers were incorporated into the mold.  According to BMW, the cost saving techniques that they learned from development of the swing arm will be directly attributable to other motorcycle components. In the future, BMW will also begin incorporating the same carbon fiber reinforcement for automotive applications.

Uber’s Autonomous Vehicle Crash Shakes Industry

Last week’s accident between a testing autonomous vehicle and a pedestrian has shaken the automotive industry. Uber, the ride sharing company and their fleet of autonomous vehicles manufactured by Volvo, have all but stopped any further autonomous vehicle testing until further notice because of the crash. The crash involved a Volvo XC90 autonomous vehicle that was occupied by a human backup driver, and a pedestrian. While details on the accident have not been released, preliminary analysis of the available evidence shows that the pedestrian likely entered the oncoming path of the XC90 without sufficient time for the vehicle’s driving systems to properly avoid hitting the pedestrian. In addition, the backup driver did not have sufficient time to react to the situation or to avoid intervening with the driverless system before the vehicle collided with the pedestrian. This was thought to have been the first ever fatal accident involving an autonomous vehicle since testing had begun, including tests undertaken by other companies, such as Google. Right after Uber suspended their autonomous vehicle testing, Toyota announced that they would also be suspending all autonomous vehicle testing until further notice. In a statement provided by Toyota, the company informed the industry that they feel that the fatality has caused an emotional response from the backup test drivers and has shaken the confidence that autonomous vehicles can effectively prevent accidents in everyday scenarios. A similar response has reverberated throughout the automotive industry. Most companies are concerned about the backlash caused by the accident and how the thought of autonomous vehicles as being completely safe may now be gone. Autonomous vehicle testing relies on sensors placed around the vehicle that “see” the environment around the vehicle in an attempt to perform the act of driving at the level of a human, or even better. The system of sensors used by autonomous vehicles is dependent on being able to correctly identify the surroundings in the event of an emergency, and respond appropriately by navigating the autonomous vehicle away from the emergency. It may be difficult for the public to regain trust in such systems after they have been shown to be fallible. -taken from www.sae.org

European Union Developing Drone Airspace

The European Union is working to develop a new type of airspace that is focused on operation of drones. Drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV for short) are becoming more and more popular throughout the world and the European Union is proactively developing a system to accommodate these new aircrafts. Drone traffic management poses a unique number of challenges. Mostly, because of the sheer number of drones that are flown in the sky, monitoring and managing positioning of drones and keeping drones away from manned aircraft is a significant challenge. Also, because drones are very small, many drones are not effectively tracked by current technology. The European Union is developing a system to accomplish effective drone flight management by next year. The Geneva based drone body that handles air navigation, Skyguide, recently joined forces with AirMap, a traffic management system, to collectively develop an infrastructure to manage drone flight across all of Europe in an airspace for low-level flight dubbed U-Space. U-Space will be defined as a flight altitude from ground level up to about 150 meters in height for which drone flight will be managed. New surveillance technologies developed for U-Space will be able to effectively track drone flights in U-Space. In the past five years, Skyguide flight requests have increased over ten times, indicating that drone operation is increasing dramatically. While collectively managing drones that fly in U-space and follow protocols set forth by Skyguide pose little threat to manned aircraft, those UAV drones that are flying unauthorized in U-Space may pose significant threat by flying too high, flying without proper tracking devices, or other illegal operations. Because of this Skyguide and AirMap are working to develop a Universal Traffic Management system that will not only track drones that have proper on-board tracking devices, but also track those drones that do not have the tracking devices installed, or the tracking devices were disabled. U-space regulations are currently being developed to cover a variety of flight conditions. -taken from www.sae.org

Boeing Developing Cargo Drone

Boeing recently unveiled a new prototype unmanned cargo drone that is currently under development. The drone, more appropriately called an unmanned aerial vehicle, or UAV, is being developed for use as a logistics operations support vehicle for the military and for commercial purposes. The drone will be electric powered and will be able to carry a 500 pound payload for cargo operations. Boeing is developing the drone as a flying test bed to be used during development of other concurrent projects including the passenger-carrying Aurora Flight Sciences aircraft that was recently transitioned into an unmanned aerial vehicle. Steve Nordlund, president of Boeing’s Horizon X, stated that, with this project, the integration of unmanned aerial systems must be developed with safety in mind, and stated that Boeing will be at the forefront of shaping the future of autonomous flight. Boeing’s Horizon X led the development of the cargo drone with its newly acquired Near Earth Autonomy from Carnegie Mellon University’s Robotics Institute. Near Earth Autonomy is developing a software platform complete with sensory inputs that enable aircraft ranging from small sub-meter drones to full scale aircraft to inspect and survey terrain, buildings, and structures autonomously. The Near Earth software and sensors will be implemented on Boeing’s cargo drone to assist in navigation and sensory input. Boeing’s Near Earth Autonomy has already been implemented on full-size autonomous helicopters in partnership with the US Army. Integration of the autonomous systems into full scale aircraft for cargo purposes was also completed for the US Marines recently. In addition to developing a cargo drone, Boeing will be continuing development of other autonomous flight systems with Aurora Flight Sciences, including a joint venture that is being developed with Uber to create a passenger specific autonomous flying vehicle that will be able to transport passengers from point to point. -taken from www.sae.org

New Aircraft Will Utilize Composite Materials

Aerospace companies Boeing and Airbus are working on developing new components to aid in developing new aircraft structures. Forecasts of aircraft sales show that the worldwide demand of large passenger airplanes will increase and an overall production number of up to 40,000 new aircraft may be realized in the next 20 years. To meet this new demand, Boeing and Airbus are working on developing new honeycomb panels that are designed to be structurally stiff, strong, and importantly, easy to assemble and produce. For the increase in aircraft demand, new aircraft structures must be easy to assemble and sub-components must be manufactured rapidly. The new structure composites or sandwiches are being developed for Boeing and Airbus by Belgium Company EconCore, along with Diehl Aircabin. The sandwich structures consist of a lightweight inner honeycomb lattice that is sandwiched between two thin layers of either aluminum or other lightweight material, to create a structure that is lightweight, strong, and has excellent thermal insulating qualities. Insulating against the cold external atmosphere while aircraft are in flight is crucial for passenger comfort and safety. In addition to the insulating properties, the inner honeycomb lattice can be made out of lightweight polycarbonate to create an excellent fire barrier within the sandwich structure. Polycarbonate is strong and resists flammability, making it a good choice for many aircraft structures. The process developed by EconCore can be formed into many different shapes; however joining the layers of the sandwich material together may pose another problem. To remedy this issue, new formulae of bonding adhesives are being developed to properly secure the components together. The benefit of using bonding adhesives instead of traditional rivets, screws, or other hardware, is the weight savings, however ensuring that the bonds between composite components remains solid for the life of the aircraft is being tested before it is put into production. -taken from www.sae.org

Military Develops Unmanned Aircraft

The United States Marine Corps is working on a few autonomous aircraft projects to enhance their performance in the battlefield. These aircraft are being designed to drop off supplies and ordinance to troops while located in remote areas that are otherwise difficult to reach without the use of specialized piloting techniques. In recent demonstration flights, autonomous helicopters were able to successfully drop off supplies while located within a test area. The company that is working on the autonomous development, Aurora Flight Science, retrofitted a UH-1H helicopter with autonomous sensors and cameras as well as LIDAR radar in order to be able to fly autonomously. The UH-1H helicopter was first developed in the 1950’s and 1970’s as a general-use helicopter. The UH-1H was made famous during the Vietnam War and is still in use today for many purposes. The Office of Naval Research’s (ONR) Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System (AACUS) program is developing a flight apparatus that can be retrofitted to more than just UH-1H helicopters. The goal is to make an aircraft-agnostic system that can be used on multiple flight platforms and can be controlled by a simple tablet-based system on the ground by troop deployments. The ground-based control will be simple enough to use that it will not require any advanced training in order to call in for re-supply missions or other support. Aurora Flight Science’s system allows for vertical flight aircraft to detect and identify multiple hazards in the flight path of the aircraft. After detection, the hazards can be safely avoided using the built-in computers that control the aircraft at all times. The Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System has transitioned to the final stages before being used in the field. The United States Marine Corps is now performing experimentation and potential acquisition on the system. Autonomous Aerial Cargo Utility System is also developing a high-performance vertical flight system, named Orion that is capable of flying for approximately 100 hours with a payload of about 1000 lbs. This unmanned aerial vehicle will is being developed under a new contract with the military and will be suitable for deployment anywhere in the world. -taken from www.sae.org