Category Archives: Heads Up

Urban taxis: ready for take-off

The future of electric vertical take-off and landing and its role in public transportation is edging ever closer as OEMs and businesses join forces to make this once sci-fi dream a reality.

For a concept to become a product, there has to be demand and affordability – enter Uber, the taxi app company, which is using its meteoric rise in ground transportation to seriously launch sky taxis.

One of the drives behind Uber’s accessibility to urban transportation lies with the rise in traffic, congestion and modern stresses related to city commuting.

Looking at the urban landscape and densely populated cities around the world, the city of São Paulo, Brazil, has one of the largest fleets of helicopters within a city. Not surprisingly, the country has the most heliports in the region with around 13 [at last count by the CIA’s world fact book 2013].

UberCopter is looking to capitalise on the number of helicopters within the city by using them as a mode of transportation across the South American metropolis.

In Silicon Valley, Airbus Group is gearing up for the first prototype flight of its A^3, part of Project Vahana, which is a self-piloted aircraft (Vahana is Sanskrit for ‘that which carries, pulls’).

airbus-helicopters-city-airbus-vtol

In addition, the OEM’s CityAirbus project is a piloted multi-propeller aircraft that the company hopes will eventually see the aircraft become fully autonomous once legislation is passed.

Returning to Uber, the company is working in collaboration with rotary OEM Bell Helicopter on an ambitious flying taxi programme which it hopes to see test flights for in 2020.

Three years from now Uber is hopeful that by utilising Bell’s innovation knowledge and expertise it will have a VTOL aircraft to operate as a taxi service.

Bell Helicopter remains tighter lipped about the timelines at this stage. In a non-committal fashion, Scott Drennan, director of engineering innovation at Bell Helicopter, told me more about the deadlines and the project.

‘We are looking carefully at what we can and can’t do. Uber has put out some pretty aggressive timelines. Bell is looking at this from a safety perspective to ensure the aircraft can perform the missions,’ Drennan said.

At this stage, Bell Helicopter’s innovation team, which recently showcased the concept FCX-001, is looking at technologies that will adhere to Uber’s brief for urban transportation.

Bell-helicopter-uber-vtol

Primarily, the team’s initial propulsion technology direction is anticipated to be centred around hybrid electric although this could evolve to fully electric.

Cities being looked at for an initial service are Dallas and Dubai. The former is no surprise being the home of Bell Helicopter.

‘We are both open to all urban environments… open to Dallas and Dubai… Dallas is our home turf, we know we have supportive mayors and we know we have lots of aerospace in the area.

‘We have communities that want to be leaders in technology and transportation. So, that’s a great choice for us as well,’ Drennan commented.

With a community that is so open to new aircraft technologies buzzing overhead, this surely provides a blank cheque for the OEM to experiment.

‘Uber is honest about the challenges. We agree with their list – autonomy and air traffic control certification, propulsion – these are all going to be unique challenges that of course Bell loves to face and matches our historical legacy of taking on transformative lift,’ Drennan commented.

He explained that in the development of the aircraft, low emissions are being considered while noise is a key parameter in its design.

Lord-vibrations-fvl-bell-v-280

Along the supply chain, Lord Corporation, a manufacturer and developer of vibration, noise and motion control parts on helicopters and fixed-wing, interestingly rose the point about external noise in relation to the next-generation of rotorcraft and how this affects certain communities around the world.

‘With external noise, there is a sensitivity to that but I think we are seeing more of that in Europe than the US. Although there are signs that it is becoming an issue in the US. I believe tours were restricted in New York city – with issues also around the Grand Canyon,’ Scott Miller, marketing manager at Lord Corporation commented to me.

This point was further emphasised by a case in Denham, UK, where complaints were made about training helicopters in proximity to residential dwellings.

The overarching aim of all these projects is for accessible transportation in large urban environments and while noise regulations is not a forefront concern at this stage, with pedestrians already bombarded by road noise, the widespread appearance of VTOL commuters will likely become an issue.

Bell-Uber taxi: How soon is now?

Uber, the taxi app company, is working in collaboration with rotary OEM Bell Helicopter on an ambitious flying taxi programme which it hopes to see test flights for in 2020.

Three years from now Uber are hopeful that utilising Bell’s innovation knowledge and expertise they will have an electric vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft to operate as a taxi service.

Bell Helicopter remain tighter lipped about the timelines at this stage. In a non-committal fashion, Scott Drennan, director of engineering innovation at Bell Helicopter told Quill or Capture more about the deadlines and the project.

‘We are looking carefully at what we can and can’t do. Uber has put out some pretty aggressive timelines. Bell is looking at this from a safety perspective to ensure the aircraft can perform the missions,’ Drennan said.

At this stage, Bell Helicopter’s innovation team, which recently showcased the concept aircraft the FCX-001, is looking at technologies that will adhere to Uber’s brief for urban transportation.

uberelevate-vtol-plane-bell-helicopter

Primarily, the team’s initial propulsion technology direction is anticipated to be centred around hybrid electric although this could evolve to fully electric.

Cities being looked at for an initial service are Dallas and Dubai. The former is no surprise being the home of Bell Helicopter.

‘We are both open to all urban environments… open to Dallas and Dubai… Dallas is our home turf, we know we have supportive mayors and we know we have lots of aerospace in the area.

‘We have communities that want to be leaders in technology and transportation. So, that’s a great choice for us as well,’ Drennan commented.

With a community that is so open to new aircraft technologies buzzing overhead, this surely provides a blank check for the OEM to experiment as this accessibility of aircraft contends with preempted complaints related to noise disturbances.

‘Uber is honest about the challenges. We agree with their list – autonomy and air traffic control certification, propulsion – these are all going to be unique challenges that of course Bell loves to face and matches our historical legacy of taking on transformative lift,’ he commented.

Drennan explained that in the development of the aircraft, low emissions are being considered and noise is a key parameter in its design.

The case for the tiltrotor

As the US Army aviation community gathers in Nashville for the annual Mission Solutions Summit – where industry will be provided updates on various army upgrade programmes – our cover story in the latest issue of Defence Helicopter features one platform the service doesn’t fly.

While there are far fewer USAF CV-22B Ospreys in service than those flown by their Marine Corps brethren, the use of the tiltrotor for special operations missions over the past decade has equally changed the way the USAF does business.

We recently gained a valuable insight in what it takes to prepare crews to fly the CV-22, with intrepid reporter Barry Smith spending several days with the training unit, the 71st Special Operations Squadron (SOS), at Kirtland AFB, New Mexico.

The Osprey is tailor-made for the vast distances encountered in many of the regions the US finds itself operating in, thanks to such features as an aerial refuelling capability, allowing the USAF and USMC to ‘collapse speed and distance’, in the words of one marine commander.

However, despite a decade of intense and relatively incident-free operations, the fatal accidents that dogged the V-22’s development continues to cast a long shadow. One obvious manifestation of this has been the public reaction in Okinawa to MV-22 operations there, particularly after an accident on 13 December that temporarily grounded the fleet. Given Japan itself is purchasing the V-22, it will be interesting to watch how that shapes public perception there in the years to come.

The suitability of the tiltrotor in meeting the gamut of demanding military missions will also be placed further under the spotlight by the US Army, as it works through the Future Vertical Lift programme in the years ahead.

And that question takes us back to Kirtland AFB, where the 71st SOS has a training syllabus that is finely honed to the unique challenges of flying the V-22.

The training focuses on the importance of CV-22 pilots and special mission aviators (SMAs) – essentially a combination of the flight engineer and loadmaster career fields with many other duties – working together, particularly given the famous rotor downwash of the Osprey, which requires close crew coordination to land in an unimproved landing zone.

Collective dyslexia

One of the biggest personal challenges transitioning from helicopters to the V-22 is the added control input of changing the angle of the engine nacelles, something the commanding officer of the unit said resulted in ‘collective dyslexia’. While this does require some getting used to, ‘everyone figures it out just fine’.

The danger of entering a ring vortex state, which was a serious problem in early USMC tiltrotor operations, is also now well understood and students are taught how to avoid it. They are also shown how to stay out of the rotor wash of other V-22s with very specific techniques and parameters.

This is not unique to the V-22 and, as the commander correctly pointed out, all aircraft have parts of the flight envelope to avoid.

Operating the V-22 will remain within the reach of very few militaries around the world, given the aircraft’s procurement and sustainment costs. While the speed and range of the platform are clearly unmatched by any other VTOL aircraft, the smaller proprotors limits the V-22’s ability to go into a hot, high-altitude landing zone at a high gross weight. In such conditions, a helicopter such as the CH-47 Chinook may well be the better choice.

Nevertheless, the story of the 71st SOS and the effectiveness of the CV-22 training programme is a provocative one in the context of the US Army’s current examination of tiltrotor versus compound coaxial for its future rotorcraft fleet.

Bell Helicopter is developing its V-280 tiltrotor as part of the army’s Joint Multirole – Technology Demonstrator effort, while Sikorsky-Boeing is advancing the SB>1 Defiant co-axial compound helicopter for the requirement – the latter recently announcing the maiden flight of the Defiant will be delayed to the first half of next year.

Despite facing off against the two industry giants in the sector, Bell will be no doubt hoping that established operations with the V-22 across three of the services will help tilt the race in its favour.

For more on the operations of the 71st SOS, see the May-June issue of Defence Helicopter

Revolutionary Road: the path to greater autonomy

During a recent trip to Edinburgh, I had the pleasure of exploring several sights in that beautiful city, including the National Museum of Scotland. There, among the displays – which highlight the country’s contribution to advances in areas such as science, medicine and engineering – was a robot called Freddy.

Its simple name belies its revolutionary nature, since much of the technology written about in the current, and pretty much all issues of Shephard Media’s Unmanned Vehicles magazine can likely be traced back to Freddy.

This particular robot was developed in the 1970s by a talented team from Edinburgh University’s then Department of Machine Intelligence and Perception. It was given the task of assembling wooden toy components presented to it in a ‘jumbled heap’.

Freddy the robot

Using a robotic arm with grippers, a camera and a basic computer, Freddy was able to take the pieces and assemble a wooden toy car. Limited computing power at the time meant this process took around 16 hours to complete.

Nevertheless, this was an incredibly complex endeavour and some even believed it was impossible. But those pioneering developers proved the doubters wrong and led the way in artificial perception and its translation into intelligent, human-like responses through computer processing and complex algorithms.

Indeed, read through the current edition of UV UV Front Cover(Volume 22 Issue 2) and you will see a common theme: the pursuit of increased autonomy for unmanned platforms.

The basic concept remains the same as it did for Freddy over 40 years ago – a UV senses its surroundings and makes intelligent decisions about the task for which it has been designated (and even those for which it has not). Advances in sensors, computer processing and artificial intelligence means that, yes, the main idea is similar, but what is achievable is vastly different.

In the edition, writer Rory Jackson examines how UGV OEMs are continuing to insert autonomous functions into their vehicles, mirroring efforts within the commercial automotive world when it comes to the driverless car revolution.

Companies such as Oshkosh, Lockheed Martin and start-up Milrem have pursued a roadmap of greater autonomy to ease soldier burden and increase safety, while at the same time attempting to lower costs. I visited Milrem in Estonia recently to see first-hand how the company is expanding its workforce as it looks to advance autonomous capabilities for its THeMIS UGV.

Milrem THeMIS

In the air domain, UAVs are integrating more intelligent features, including technologies like sense and avoid, not only to ease integration into airspace occupied by manned aircraft and enable beyond-line-of-light operations – as Beth Stevenson details in her analysis of the current state of UAS regulation in the US – but also when it comes to controlling systems, or multiple systems (ie swarms), through a ground control station (GCS).

In this edition, Angus Batey runs through GCS and C2 technologies for UAVs and how there will be extra considerations for air forces as they bring capabilities such as stealth UAVs into service in the future.

RS20416_UK - Secrets Taking Flight

Much will depend on how an advanced stealth platform makes decisions by itself, rather than today’s UAV concept of operations that sees a reliance on external human commands sent via SATCOM. These signals would likely give away a stealth aircraft’s position to enemy air defences.

Another area where platform autonomy will be crucial is underwater. Much like contested airspace in a warzone, communication links to and from a deep-sea robot are inherently difficult. This means that the more decisions an AUV can make by itself, the better.

Heidi Vella explores this in more detail for UV with her take on the growing use of AUVs in the commercial world, and importantly, the challenges still present.

NASA demonstration.jpg

The key to the adoption of autonomous vehicles will be quantitative evidence that investing in the technology, however expensive, will eventually bring down cost of operations, while also increasing safety and productivity.

So, as you read through our current issue of UV, remember that Freddy, the pioneering Scottish robot, and his legacy, lives on. For those of us who are following the developments in this exciting sector, it will be interesting to see which one of the technologies within this issue, and future editions of UV, will have such a revolutionary effect that we will also be talking about it in 40 years’ time.

The April/May edition of Unmanned Vehicles is out now, download a FREE copy through Shephard Media’s Android and Apple apps.

Is US SOCOM’s load too heavy?

Earlier this year President Trump gave his blessing for more ‘beautiful equipment’ for US Special Forces Command, but the organisation has serious issues with over-extension and ever-increasing commitments.

Since its creation 30 years ago it has grown in size and taken on more responsibilities but does that still make it ‘special’ or just another army within an army? At over 56,000 people strong and with a global reach it is the service that most SF units around the world look to for leadership and both technical and tactical developments.

But with a list of at least a dozen core commitments from special reconnaissance and unconventional warfare through to counter-proliferation of weapons of mass destruction and foreign humanitarian assistance it is difficult for even a force of this size to maintain the required levels of expertise.

US Congress has warned about these issues in a report in January and it remains to be seen how the new Trump administration and in particular the new National Security Adviser, Lt Gen McMaster and Secretary of Defense James Mattis foresee the role of USSOCOM.

A more robust approach to engaging in operations has already seen an increase in operational tempo and the death of a US Navy SEAL in Yemen in January, but this will impact the organisation.

It is possible that the promise to increase military spending will see USSOCOM grow even more and improve its capabilities or perhaps larger conventional forces will be able to take on some of the responsibilities allowing US Special Forces to stay focused on a smaller number of key tasks and roles (see the April-May edition of Land Warfare International for more).

US Army’s bionic arm needs improvement, this is how

Alleviating the weight burden on soldiers is a never-ending task. Armies are always on the look out for novel equipment and technology that lessen the burden – not always necessarily by reducing weight, but helping him or her carry a large load instead.

One of the latest technologies to come out of the US is a bionic ‘third arm’, created by the US Army Research Lab, which helps soldiers carry a weapon such as the issue M16/M4 rifle.

Now, I’m always keen to hear about weight-saving technologies and devices that can make tabbing and fighting with heavy kit are little more bearable (it can be a pretty horrible experience), but I’m sceptical about the arm:

The bionic arm weighs around 2kg and attaches to the soldier’s protective vest, which means reducing weight on a soldier’s upper body and potentially freeing up the arms for other tasks.

Now, this looks pretty interesting when it’s on an exhibition floor and makes a great story, but as ever with this type of technology it throws up a lot of questions about how this would be utilised ‘in the field’.

When soldiers and light infantry are attacking positions, they spend a lot of time in different positions, including standing, kneeling, lying flat (or prone) and everything in between.

There’s also generally a lot of running, crawling and climbing – depending on the terrain and fighting environment – which means your kit (and body) goes through some serious punishment.

For me, I think the arm would actually be a hindrance in those situations, rather than a help. The M4/M16 is not exactly a heavy weapon, in fact it’s one of the lightest assault rifles in the world, so having an extra bionic appendage to help carry it seems a little strange. But it could lead to some interesting technological developments, so I won’t write it off completely.

Now where this could find some purpose is carrying heavy weaponry, much like the soldiers in the film Alien 2 that use a similar articulated arm. The researchers have already said they are interested in attaching the M249 and M240 – but let’s think bigger!

My advise, swap out the lightweight M16/M4 for a beastly 7.62mm M134 Minigun capable of spewing out thousands of round per minute. Now this would be something that would significantly increase the lethality of the individual soldier and his squad.

Also it means that soldiers can recreate this epic scene from Terminator 2.

Or, better yet, that awesome scene from Predator:

Food for thought.

Staying peerless on the battlefield

Shephard Media has suddenly become a lot more acquainted with the world of military special forces following our acquisition of Special Operations Forces (SOF) magazine.

As if the critical role that SOF operators play in current campaigns was not obvious enough, opening the recent AFCEA West exhibition, a former Supreme Allied Commander Europe was clear about the need for ‘peerless special forces’.

ADM James G. Stavridis, US Navy (retired), placed an unrivalled SOF capability alongside advances in cyber and unmanned systems as essential for US forces to meet current and emerging threats.

‘You are going to see some changes to that traditional force, which I would argue for the navy, for example, ought to be around 340 ships. But you are going to need better cyber capability; we are going to need bet­ter unmanned platforms, including those operating in the maritime space and the overhead; and we are going to need peerless Special Forces,’ ADM Stavridis told the gathered delegates.

He cited the example of US Navy SEAL Michael Murphy who lost his life in Afghanistan in 2005 and was awarded the Medal of Honor for his actions during Operation Red Wings.

‘Today he is memorialised in the destroyer USS Michael Murphy. We need peerless special forces like Michael Murphy, a Navy SEAL, but also he represents in my mind all of the wonderful volunteers in the services who stand on the wall at night and protect us.’

One crucial element in the Pentagon’s security strategy is the role SOF units are playing in building partner nations SF capacity, which is a central theme to our second issue of 2017.

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In a comprehensive commentary, Lt Gen Ken Tovo and Lt Col Duane Mosier outline the ways in which members of US SOF continue to develop effective partner forces in countries around the world, helping them to win against determined enemies.

Providing examples from Afghanistan, Colombia and Iraq, the US Army Special Operations Com­mand (USASOC) leadership outlines how US SOF has ‘built, trained and developed effective partner forces through persistent and deliberate engagement’.

Elsewhere in the issue, we speak to the head of Special Operations Command in Spain about the new command’s success in coordinating the country’s Army, Air Force and Navy SOF.

Brig Gen Jaime Íñiguez Andrade explains that, in line with the creation of joint commands in other Western countries, the development of the new command and increased resources Madrid has allocated to SOF activities is a recognition of the importance of SF in light of current threats.

We also look at the development of SOF units across Latin America, frequently in partnership with the US, as well as the introduction of new technologies to make working within an interna­tional coalition easier and more effective.

Current operations are demanding more and more from the SOF community, forcing operators to seek new force-multiplying technologies across a widening spectrum of mission sets.

This is most prevalent across the Middle East – particularly the partnering missions with Iraqi and Kurdish forces against Daesh – and Eastern Europe, where coalitions of SOF units are central to ongoing counter-terrorism and counter-insurgency campaigns.

U.S. Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk during Fast Rope Insertion and Extraction training as part of Emerald Warrior at Hurlburt Field, Fla., April 22, 2015. Emerald Warrior is the Department of Defense's only irregular warfare exercise, allowing joint and combined partners to train together and prepare for real world contingency operations. (U.S. Air Force photo by Staff Sgt. Kenneth W. Norman/Released)

US Army Soldiers from the 7th Special Forces Group prepare to fast-rope out of a UH-60 Blackhawk.

From Russia’s electronic warfare capability to the (increasingly armed) airborne ISR assets developed by Daesh, emerging new threats will require SOF units to work ever harder to remain ‘peerless’ on the battlefield.

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