The snowball effect

I’VE just overseen the Dec/Jan issue of Unmanned Vehicles magazine as its new editor.

Seems strange that this time 15 years ago, I was mid-way through the initial sizing of a HALE UAV for my final-year project at the University of Southampton – and now I find myself editing the leading title for unmanned technology.

Over Christmas in 1999, armed with a copy of Daniel P Raymer’s book Aircraft Design: A Conceptual Approach, I locked myself in the spare room of my parent’s home to escape the festive noises from downstairs, entering the author’s complex aircraft sizing equations into Microsoft Excel.

Daniel P Raymer

I recall saving the files onto floppy disc – yes, that’s how long ago it was. OK, so it wasn’t my most exciting Christmas, but I nailed down the key parameters for my design, adjusting them based on future expectations in UAV design – this was interesting. However, Raymer’s book gave multipliers for some of the equations that were based on manned aircraft, so I had to tweak these and justify their use by basing them on the foreseeable developments in unmanned vehicles.

I recall writing that my design should be capable of being built, with certain provisos. What prompted me to design a UAV in the first place was reading an article about the capabilities of the Global Hawk, where I was amazed by what it could do. Little did I know then about just how big a role this platform would go on to take in operations today.

But technology snowballs and having just taken on the editorship of this magazine, I’m fascinated by where we currently are. Somehow the unmanned vehicle concepts that I read about back in the year 2000 have now come to fruition and in many ways have surpassed expectations – not just mine, but the entire industry’s. This is something to be celebrated, so I can completely sympathise with the industry leaders that attended the Commercial UAV Show in London in October and were upset by the FAA’s comments that the sense and avoid technology ‘hasn’t proven to exist’. While the US military might not have a solution, there clearly are numerous companies throughout the world that do and you can read about who they are on p22 of the issue. I’ll point you to Michael Drobac’s concluding comment about overcoming adversity – if his words don’t spur you forward, then I don’t know what else will.

Elsewhere in the new Dec/Jan issue of Unmanned Vehicles we have two new data links coming onto the market (see p32), with Peter Donaldson exploring what they offer. We also look at the new technology being used in UGVs and the direction they are taking, with Andrew White picking out some inspiring examples. My favourite involves inspecting underneath pipelines – somewhere UAVs cannot see.

We’ve also looked how unmanned vehicles are increasingly being used for environmental monitoring (see p17). Kongsberg Maritime’s Seaglider (below) can monitor the oceans for as long as nine months and uses small changes in buoyancy and wings to move forward. It pitches and rolls using adjustable ballast – very clever.

Ikhana footage

Live video of the Orion rocket launch was streamed from NASA’s Ikhana UAV

Finally, we saw a similar example of cleverness in December when NASA’s Predator B, Ikhana, monitored the Orion space capsule (see p4). It not only helped the US Navy retrieve the capsule more quickly, which will be important when there are astronauts in it, but allowed the whole world to watch live online.

The take-home from all of this is that while the big money might be with helping the military strike targets, those of us looking at the scientific and practical applications of unmanned vehicles may well be the ones that strike gold.