Could This Hydrogen-Powered Drone Be the Future of Transportation?

Could This Hydrogen-Powered Drone Be the Future of Transportation?

Could This Hydrogen-Powered Drone Be the Future of Transportation?

It’s got six electric motors—but they’re not powered by a battery.

The idea of scaling up a drone to carry passengers isn’t new. Who among us hasn’t gazed up at a DJI Phantom and wished that we could be up there with it, soaring amongst the birds and transmitting data back to China?

Well, batteries are the obstacle standing between us and our glorious LaunchPad McQuack future. Current battery technology would offer limited range in a human-scale electric vertical takeoff and landing vehicle, even when burdened with only the skinniest of rich people on their way to Montauk. And if you build a machine like that without batteries, that’s called a helicopter and it’s something that will definitely get you on the naughty list at your HOA when you land it in your backyard.

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ALAKA’I

But Alaka’i Technologies in Hopkinton, Mass., thinks that the solution to this conundrum is hydrogen fuel cells, which allow use of electric motors but offer range and refueling speed more in line with your friendly neighborhood gas station. Its debut vehicle, the Skai, claims about 400 miles of range (or four hours of flight time), with capacity for five passengers or 1,000 pounds, whichever comes first.

Top speed is a strangely specific at 118 mph and refueling takes less than 10 minutes. With six rotors and multiple fuel cells, Alaka’i is building in layers of redundancy throughout the flight systems. Nonetheless, there’s also an airframe parachute, for that unbeatable “we’ve got a parachute” peace of mind.

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ALAKA’I

The Skai, which was designed by BMW Group’s Designworks studio, certainly looks futuristic, spare, and sleek. Alaka’i has initiated their test program to get certified with the FAA, and after that they see a lot of possibilities for the Skai: passenger flight, emergency medical response, cargo delivery.

OK, basically most of the things you could do with a helicopter, but presumably without as much noise and with only water as a direct emission (the indirect emissions will depend on the electricity source behind the hydrogen production). Plans call for a piloted version first, then followed by autonomous models.

If the idea of a hydrogen-powered autonomous electric flying machine strikes you as far-fetched, remember that a few years ago everybody pointed when they saw a drone and now nobody cares.

That’s the day Alaka’i envisions: when a Skai flies by and nobody looks up.

Drone-Delivered Vaccines Are Launching a New Era of Health Aid

Drone-Delivered Vaccines Are Launching a New Era of Health Aid

It’s the first time vaccines have been transported via UAV.

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JASON CHUTE/UNICEF

For the first time ever on Monday, a drone delivered vaccines to a baby in the remote South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu.

One-month-old Joy Nowai is now the first person to be immunized by drugs delivered via commercial drone. The feat was made possible thanks to the Australian company Swoop Aero, which contracted with Vanuatu’s government to orchestrate the delivery with some help from UNICEF. The vaccine-carrying drone is the latest development in a trend that’s seen UAVs ferry medical supplies to rural communities in the U.S. and to parts of Africa. The delivery adds fuel to a growing industry intent of using drones to supply medicine to the developing world.

Owing to its remote location and rough geography, Vanuatu is hard to access for medical professionals. The country is composed of 80 islands scattered in the South Pacific, with a limited network of roads connecting the population of roughly 26,000. According to UNICEF, 20 percent of the country’s children have never received their vaccine shots, which is why it’s only right for UAVs to swoop in.

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UNICEF

Using a drone was especially necessary in delivering the drugs to Nowai. She lives on the eastern side of the island in Cook’s Bay, a region with no electricity or health center that’s only accessible by boat or by traversing the craggy terrain on foot. After the drone landed there, Nowai and 13 other children and five women were vaccinated by a registered nurse.

“Today’s small flight by drone is a big leap for global health,” said Henrietta H. Fore, UNICEF executive director. “With the world still struggling to immunize the hardest to reach children, drone technologies can be a game changer for bridging that last mile to reach every child.”

The successful delivery was the conclusion of two trial runs, carried out by Swoop Aero and WingCopter, both of which ferried test payloads in the two weeks prior. Swoop Aero passed the test when it landed within six feet of the target area after a 31-mile journey carrying the medical supplies.

Getting a drone to deliver vaccines safely in Vanuatu’s warm, tropical climate also posed a dilemma. Since vaccines have to be kept at a certain temperature to ensure their efficacy, the drone was equipped with Styrofoam boxes with ice packs and a temperature logger. An electronic indicator was also attached to the rig, to send an alert if any of the vaccines got too warm.

Fore said the milestone could provide a blueprint for future vaccines delivered via UAV:

“Today’s first-of-a-kind vaccine delivery has enormous potential not only for Vanuatu, but also for the thousands of children who are missing out on vaccines across the world. This is innovation at its best, and shows how we can unlock the potential of the private sector for the greater good of the world’s children.”

UNICEF says Vanuatu is interested in integrating the drone technology into its national immunization program, which could surely do a lot of good in promoting health in Vanuatu for generations to come.

What Are Airports Going to Do About Drones?

What Are Airports Going to Do About Drones?

There are plenty of counter-drone weapons to choose from, but all of them have shortcomings.

FBL-ENG-PR-MAN UTD-SOLSKJAER

OLIE SCARFFGETTY IMAGES

For the second time in less than a month, flights at a major London airport have been halted by drone activity. On Monday evening, departures from Heathrow Airport were stopped for about an hour after a drone sighting nearby with the British military investigating the situation.

But at a time when the number of drones—hobbyist and commercial—will only increase, is there anything airports and governments can do to safeguard against delays, and, in the worst circumstances, fatal collisions?

Tiny Drone, Big Threat

It’s no secret that a collision between an airliner and a drone could be catastrophic. Even though it’s small, these “mechanical geese from hell” pose big threats to a plane’s exterior and its engines.

Yesterday’s disruption at Heathrow has been minor compared to the holiday mess at Gatwick Airport, which shut down after an airport security officer spotted two drones flying over a perimeter road. Over 140,000 passengers had their flights diverted or delayed. Airport operations at Gatwick did not resume until 36 hours after the original incident.

Geofencing restrictions built into consumer drones are supposed to stop them from operating in prohibited areas but those safety measures can easily be hacked. New UK laws prohibiting drone use near airports may stop hobbyists, but are clearly not enough to stop malicious users, such as criminals, terrorists, or activists bent on stopping flights.

That leaves the use of force. The “military capability” brought in at Gatwick was withdrawn on January 3 and is now at Heathrow. The Ministry of Defence refuses to comment exactly what they are using, but we can gather a pretty good idea of what it is and what it does.

There are currently six different ways to take down a drone, and some more plausible than others.

Detect, Identify, and Jam

Flights Resume From Gatwick Airport After Drone Activity Halted Christmas Getaway
Authorities at Gatwick airport searching for the offending drone on December 21, 2018.

JACK TAYLORGETTY IMAGES

Small drones are elusive. Despite 93 credible sightings by witnesses at Gatwick Airport, there was no good video of the drone in action, and drones are just as difficult to spot on radar. Radar to spot and track aircraft is designed to filter out small, slow objects, which were previously most likely to be birds, so special sensors are needed for drones.

According to Aviation Week Magazine, the system used at Gatwick was the $6 million Anti-UAV [Unmanned Aerial Vehicle] Defence System or AUDS. This combines a radar sensor from Blighter, a Hawkeye video tracker and thermal imager which can track and classify a drone, and a radio jammer from Enterprise Control Systems.

Jammers work by interfering with communications between the operator and the drone. This is fairly easy with commercial drones, which operate on known wavelengths and have no resistance to interference. When a drone loses the radio link, it will attempt to fly back towards the operator to re-establish a connection. If GPS navigation is also jammed, it will usually land on the spot.

There are many similar drone detection and jamming systems. According to The Times of Israel, the British used the Drone Dome system from Israeli company Rafael at Gatwick, another one combining specialist sensors and jammers. This is certainly possible given that the UK purchased a system earlier in 2018.

However, this type of defense works only with consumer drones, which often rely on radio signals. More advanced drones can work on their own; for example, the new Skyraider from Aeryon has a “Dark Mode” for covert operations, flying autonomously with no operator link, while DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment shows how whole swarms of drones can work together when both communications and GPS are jammed.

And this capability is only going to spread.

Shoot ‘Em Down

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CC BY-2.0/FRANCIS FLINCH + JOHN MILLS (MODIFIED BY ERIC LIMER)

Police considered trying to shoot down drones at Gatwick, but even that is not as easy as it sounds. While drones have been knocked down with thrown sticks, beer bottles, or by shotgun-wielding neighbors, these are usually slow or stationary drones hovering at short distance. Police at Gatwick were pictured armed with shotguns, which present less of a safety hazard than rifles but are only effective at close range.

At an altitude of several hundred feet, and moving at 30 mph, a drone is an extremely challenging target. The U.S. Army’s guidance on tackling small, low, slow drones advises that rather than individual soldiers trying to shoot at the drone, the entire platoon should fire their rifles and machine guns at a fixed point in the sky in the drone’s flight path so it runs into a wall of lead.

However, every bullet has to land somewhere, and bullets can be dangerous more than a mile away. Massed firing into the sky in densely populated southern England would be likely to end up with unacceptable collateral damage. Even one broken window would draw unfavorable media attention.

Call In R2-D2

Maybe something more advanced than manually aimed bullets is needed.

The Phalanx CIWS fitted to U.S. warships is a computer-controlled, radar-guided cannon with an awesome rate of fire. Affectionately known as R2-D2 (and “the Dalek” to UK Royal Navy crews), it spits out 70 20mm rounds a second and can shoot down sea-skimming missiles at the last second before they reach a ship. A modified version, C-RAM, defends U.S. bases from rockets and mortar rounds.

CIWS looks ideal for taking out small drones with shells designed to “explode at a certain altitude so as to reduce injuries on the ground.” But any duds would leave an area littered with unexploded ordnance, something that’s happened to London before. During World War II, falling anti-aircraft shells sometimes did more damage than the bombers they were supposed to shoot down.

For the meantime though, these systems are simply not built to deal with small, slow threats at low levels. Rockets and mortar rounds come in on a high trajectory where they show up well on radar, whereas drones can stay close to the ground. Phalanx would need to be integrated with a new radar/sensor system to cope with the threat, and protecting a major airport like Gatwick would be an expensive proposition.

Tangled Up in Nets

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SKYNET

Nets are safer than bullets or missiles with no risk of collateral damage to the surrounding area. Skywall made by UK company Liteye is a bazooka-like device, which fires a net to entangle a drone and parachute it safely to the ground. There is no danger to anyone underneath and the drone is captured intact for forensic analysis.

Other net projectiles range from Skynet 12-gauge shotgun cartridges to 40mm cannon rounds. But high-velocity rounds are dangerous projectiles. Skywall is launched with compressed air, which ensures that it is safe but means that range is limited to about a hundred meters, which would have been of little use to security personnel at Gatwick.

Getting a Bit Sci-Fi

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U.S. ARMY / MONICA K. GUTHRIE

On its surface, lasers look like the ideal way to counter drone weapons. They are precise enough to hit small, agile targets a mile away, and there is no risk to people or property on the ground.

Israeli aerospace outfit Rafael, who make the Drone Dome system allegedly deployed at Gatwick, can also supply a laser “hard kill” anti-drone module. There are a vast number of other counter-drone lasers jostling for room in the marketplace, from the U.S. Army’s own version, to systems from makers like Raytheon and Lockheed Martin and European firms BAE Systems and Rheinmetall. Not to mention similar systems in China and Russia.

Lasers have been shooting down drones on test range since 1973, but have not yet been used in action because of a key issue known as “dwell time.” Rather than being instantaneous like a bullet, the beam has to stay focused on the drone for a period of time to melt or burn it enough to bring it down. Drones in tests fly in convenient straight lines, an unlikely path for a real target.

Military lasers also work on specific, known wavelengths, so operators could coat their drones in protective material to reflect that specific frequency and degrade the laser’s effectiveness.

Fighting Fire With Fire

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DRONECLASH

In the end, the best way to bring down a drone may be with another drone.

An event known as DroneClash, organized in 2018 by Delft University of Technology, challenges developers and engineers to find creative ways to counter threat drones without any risk to bystanders. In last year’s competition, teams armed their drones with entangling devices and dart guns or reinforced them for ramming. Dogfighting drones are a cheap, long-range solution which can be directed with high precision.

The military has also done something similar. In June 2018, the U.S. Marine Corps fielded a mobile defense system called GBAD with an array of sensors, jammers, and missiles, along with a pod of interceptor drones. These are based on Raytheon’s Coyote drone and are armed with high-explosive warheads. Unlike missiles, the interceptor drones should not present a hazard if they fail to find a target and may even be reusable.

No Easy Solution

The motives of the drone operators at Gatwick and Heathrow are not known, but another drone incident looks like a near certainty. None of the existing solutions is likely to work on its own. In the future, airports are likely to rely on a variety of drone detection and tracking sensors, backed up by jammers and other systems such as interceptor drones.

Cost will be an issue. While big airports like Gatwick and Heathrow may be able to afford several million for drone protection, smaller operators will not have that luxury, simply shifting the problem to the places that are less able to deal with it.

Any failure is likely to lead to another shutdown, and at worst, a malicious drone could bring disaster.

New Gargantuan Internet-Beaming Drone Aims to Succeed Where All Others Have Failed

New Gargantuan Internet-Beaming Drone Aims to Succeed Where All Others Have Failed

AeroEnvironment’s newest UAV is rumored to look at lot like the Helios Prototype, which crashed in 2003.

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AeroEnvironment’s newest drone will mirror its prior creation, the Helios Prototype.

NASA

A race is on to build a fleet of solar-powered drones that beam internet down to the Earth beneath them, and the tech titans are dominating this chase—or so we thought. But now that Google and Facebook both have dashed their plans for roaming unmanned internet planes, a lesser known company is partnering with NASA to bring the project closer to reality, according to an IEEE Spectrum report.

It is the Hawk 30, a massive 10-engine drone in the vein of previous UAVs made by Airbus and the solar-powered Odysseus plane that can fly for months on end. The product of Japanese tech giant SoftBank and U.S. drone manufacturer AeroEnvironment, the Hawk could soon embark on test flights, with a launch from NASA’s Armstrong Flight Research Center potentially slated for this week.

The Hawk, though part of a new $65 million partnership between the two companies, is part of the same family as previous UAVs AeroEnvironment built for NASA. One of those was the Helios prototype, which crashed in 2003 during a high-altitude test. The Hawk mirrors its ill-fated predecessor in both ambition and design. In 2001, the Helios reached the highest altitude of any winged horizontal aircraft when it ascended to 93,000 feet. The milestone set a new precedent for high-altitude, solar aircraft.

Photos of the Hawk 30 are scant, but per images dug up by IEEE Spectrum, it looks like the wide-bodied cousin of the Helios.

While it may be years from commercial readiness, the Hawk 30 has big implications for the broadening of wireless connectivity in remote regions, if indeed it can succeed where others have failed: Facebook made a splashy foray into the internet-beaming drone race by announcing Aquila, a solar-powered UAV the size of a Boeing 737’s wingspan that used propellers to ply air. (The project was abandoned in 2017 after the drones were damaged in landings). Google too began vetting its sky-born internet capabilities in 2015, but later scrapped drones in favor of Project Loon, which uses high-altitude balloons to beam down internet.

The Hawk will still have to fend off competition from the likes of Airbus, but its prospects are lifted by AeroEnvironments connections with NASA. IEEE Spectrum reports the company is contracted with the space agency for three flight tests that will take the drone up to 10,000 feet, with the intention go much higher if initial tests are successful:

AeroVironment is paying NASA nearly $800,000 to supervise and provide ground support for the upcoming low altitude tests, which are scheduled to continue until the end of June. If those are successful, the company will go higher in its next round.

There’s currently no word on the Hawk’s communications payload capacity, but its creators certainly hope that it helps expand wireless internet access across the globe. First, though, it will have to make it out of testing unscathed.

Model aircraft pilots angry over drone laws

Model aircraft pilots angry over drone laws

A modeller making an aircraftImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionModel-aircraft flyers do not want to be classed as drone pilots

People who fly model aircraft are angry that proposed drone rules could damage their much-loved hobby.

They argue they should not be classed as drone pilots.

The new laws are intended to make airspace safer amid increasing drone use.

The British Model Flying Association (BMFA) met the Aviation Minister Baroness Vere this week to discuss its concerns.

The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) is currently consulting on proposals for a drone registration scheme that is due to become law in November. It has received 6,000 responses from BMFA members.

David Phipps, chief executive of BMFA, said the proposed rules, which would see all pilots of unmanned aerial vehicles required to register, pay for a licence and take competency tests every three years are “disproportionate” for model-aircraft flyers.

“We have established an excellent safety record that surpasses commercial aviation over a century of flying. European laws grant special recognition to model flying, saying it should be treated differently but the UK has not done this.”

He acknowledged that while “some” would regard the proposed registration fee of £16.50 as “not a lot of money”, it still represented “a barrier to entry” especially for young people getting involved in the hobby.

He added that plans for a safety test “which will be answering a few questions on the CAA’s website” were far less rigorous than his organisation’s own safety tests. He worried that many of his members would simply ignore the new rules and “go under the radar”.

The need for tighter rules around the use of unmanned aerial vehicles became apparent following reports of drone sightings at Gatwick Airport in December 2018, which caused major disruption for passengers.

Cliff EvansImage copyrightCLIFF EVANS
Image captionCliff Evans has been flying model aircraft for 50 years

Cliff Evans has been flying model aircraft since he was nine and is unhappy that his hobby has been caught up in the drone debate.

“It is becoming more and more obvious that we as aero modellers are being targeted because of the commercial value of the airspace that we occupy. I and all other modellers that I know find this offensive and unnecessary,” he told the BBC.

He said that the good relationship the BMFA has built up with the CAA over the years is currently “under great strain” because of attempts to “limit and control our hobby”.

Amazon has just been granted a permit to operate its drones in the US and plans to deliver packages to customers there “within months”.

Aviation Minister Baroness Vere said: “While the majority of people flying model aircraft do so responsibly, the registration scheme will increase accountability for all unmanned aircraft operators.

“All unmanned aircraft, whether fixed wing model aircraft or drones, have the potential to pose a safety and security threat. The proposed registration scheme and charges are in line with other hobby licensing, such as fishing.”

Japan outlaws flying drones while drunk

Japan outlaws flying drones while drunk

A droneImage copyrightPA
Image captionDrone use is growing in Japan as in many other nations

Operating a drone in Japan while drunk could lead to a year in prison thanks to new legislation.

The law, passed by the country’s parliament this week, seeks to rein in growing use of the unmanned aerial vehicles.

Those found to be intoxicated while flying a drone could also face a fine of up to 300,000 yen (£2,200).

The law covers drones weighing more than 200g (7oz) and also puts limits on where drones can be flown.

“We believe operating drones after consuming alcohol is as serious as (drink) driving,” a Japanese transport ministry official told the AFP news agency.

As well as fines over drunken use, the legislation also levies fines on pilots who perform dangerous stunts with their drone. Those caught quickly plunging the craft towards crowds could face fines of up to 500,000 yen.

Operators also face restrictions on where they can fly their craft under the new legislation.

Drones are now banned from being flown within 300m (985ft) of Japan’s armed forces, US military personnel and “defence-related facilities” without prior permission.

This follows an earlier ban on them approaching nuclear power plants, Japan’s parliament buildings and the prime minister’s office. The stadiums and other sites for the 2020 Olympics are also off-limits to drone pilots.

Anyone operating a drone in Japan does not need a licence but must abide by a series of regulations including:

  • staying below 150m
  • avoiding airports
  • avoiding crowded areas
  • only flying during daylight
  • keeping the drone in sight at all times

Anyone failing to abide by the established regulations could face a fine of up to 500,000 yen.

Extinction Rebellion postpone Heathrow drone protest

Extinction Rebellion postpone Heathrow drone protest

Extinction RebellionImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionClimate protesters held a demonstration outside Heathrow Airport on 19 April

A plan by climate protestors to shut down Heathrow Airport with drones on Tuesday has been postponed.

Extinction Rebellion had threatened to cause disruption by flying drones in June and July, in protest against a planned expansion of the airport.

On Friday, police warned those involved they could face a life sentence and urged campaigners to reconsider.

The group has confirmed its plans have been grounded adding the airport would “not have to pause any summer flights”.

Extinction Rebellion had been in talks with its members to stage a demonstration on 18 June and for up to 10 further days in July unless the government cancelled the expansion plans.

However, the group said the action had been called off.

DroneImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionThe sighting of drones brought Gatwick Airport to a halt just before Christmas last year

“The subsequent accusation that Extinction Rebellion was willing to endanger life is a depressing and predictable smear,” a statement said.

“Extinction Rebellion has not removed Heathrow Airport from its strategic planning,” it added.

Heathrow Airport called the potential action “reckless”, saying it “could endanger the lives of the travelling public and our colleagues”.

A spokeswoman added: “We agree with the need to act on climate change, but that requires us to work together constructively – not commit serious criminal offences.”

Media captionTens of thousands of passengers were disrupted in a drone attack at Gatwick Airport in December

Ten days of protests by Extinction Rebellion activists across London in April saw 1,130 people arrested for various offences.

Pembrokeshire coast drones risk to protected seabirds

Pembrokeshire coast drones risk to protected seabirds

 

ChoughImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionChoughs – a rare corvid species – nest on cliffs on the Pembrokeshire coast

Protected wildlife could be put at risk because of drones flown over a national park, a ranger has said.

One was recently spotted near Stack Rocks, Castlemartin, at a time of year when guillemots and razorbills are ashore nesting.

It was reported to police and Pembrokeshire Coast National Park ranger Lynne Houlston urged drone operators not to disturb birds.

She said guidance has been developed, outlining the issues.

“Birds are particularly sensitive to disturbance during the nesting season and in this case the stacks were covered in thousands of seabirds, precariously perched with eggs on their feet,” Ms Houlston said.

“The cliffs around Stack Rocks also provide nesting sites for kittiwakes, chough, gulls, fulmar and raven.”

Ravens can start nesting as early as March, while from August to November, seal pups – which are protected by law – are born in the caves.

Guidance explains the impact drones can have on seals, wading birds, waterfowl and livestock.


Changi Airport: Drones disrupt flights in Singapore

Changi Airport: Drones disrupt flights in Singapore

  • 25 June 2019

Unauthorised drone flying has prompted disruptions at Singapore’s Changi Airport for the second time in a week.

The country’s Civil Aviation Authority (CAAS) said 18 flights had been delayed, and seven flights diverted due to drones and bad weather. Last week, one runway was suspended at Changi and dozens of flights delayed after drone sightings. Airports around the world face growing security concerns as drone use becomes more common. In a statement on Tuesday, CAAS said: “15 departures and 3 arrivals were delayed and 7 flights were diverted due to bad weather and unauthorised drone activities”. “Members of the public are reminded that the authorities take a serious view of errant operations of unmanned aircraft which may pose threats to aviation or endanger the personal safety of others,” the statement said. The agency said investigations are “ongoing”. CAAS also said offenders could face fines of up to $20,000 Singapore dollars ($14,780; £11,596) or 12 months in prison. It marked the second time in a week that flights at the Singapore airport – a major international transit hub – had been disrupted by drone activity. Last Wednesday, CASS said 37 flights were delayed and one flight was diverted after “confirmed sightings of drone flying in the vicinity of Changi Airport”.
Control Tower of Changi International AirportImage copyrightGETTY IMAGES
Image captionSingapore’s Changi Airport is a major transit hub
An increase in drone flying has become a growing security concern for airports all over the world. Drone sightings caused travel chaos at Gatwick airport in December, with about 140,000 passengers caught up in the disruption. The runway at the UK’s second busiest airport was closed for 33 hours over three days – causing about 1,000 flights to be cancelled or delayed.