Augusta Westland Tilt-rotor

I love a new idea.

The helicopter industry, unfortunately, is not great at new ideas (the aerospace industry in general, for that matter.) Consider that the same design–single main rotor with tail rotor–has been used over and over and over.  Bell’s bread and butter aircraft, the 206, has been essentially the same design since 1966; many, many other helicopters look strikingly similar.

Project Zero

So, I was really excited at the AHS Forum when I discovered Project Zero by Agusta-Westland: an all-electric flying-wing, tilt-rotor, ducted-fan flying thing.  I don’t even know exactly what to call it!  Nice work, A-W.

American Helicopter Society Annual Forum–UAV Report

Today is the final day of the 69th Annual Forum of the American Helicopter Society, and I thought I ought to post a report of what I saw and the technical presentations I sat in on.

From Boeing's booth.
From Boeing’s booth.

First, the eye candy–the exhibition hall was pretty cool, though unfortunately small enough to see everything in 10-15 minutes. All of the major helicopter manufacturers were present: Sikorsky, Bell, Boeing, Eurocopter, Lockheed Martin, and McDonnell-Douglas. One thing I found interesting was what you might call “co-opertition” among the companies. For example, Boeing outfits the MD500E for the unmanned Little Bird; Bell and Boeing jointly produced the V-22; Lockheed-Martin was showing off their unmanned version of Kaman’s K-Max and their Special Ops version of Sikorsky’s Blackhawk; more than 5 companies were advertising their involvement with Sikorsky S-92 Raider. Perhaps the most unusual item on display was at the Sikorsky booth: an all-electric personal open-air helicopter. It was only a mock-up, as far as I could tell, but still attracted a lot of attention.

K-Max Model
K-Max Model

As far as technical presentations go, I went to nearly all the papers in the Unmanned VTOL Aircraft & Rotorcraft (including my own presentation, of course!) Something that surprised me was the relatively few subjects that were covered: five papers on obstacle/collision avoidance, two papers on autonomous autorotation, two papers on cyclocopters, and two papers on ship-deck state estimation. Our paper was the only dealing with multiple aircraft, and the only one showing a relatively novel application of rotorcraft.

The first paper was by Goerzen and a bunch others, reporting on the obstacle field navigation and automatic landing-site selection work using the RASCAL. Very cool work and I really appreciated how much effort it took to get the whole system ported from an RMax to a Blackhawk. I felt for them, however, that safety restrictions kept them from actually landing automatically–would have been really nice to prove through action that their system really worked.

Next was work by Dr. Prasad on safety metrics for obstacle avoidance–also very good. His student, Remi Coisnan, developed a nice psuedo-norm for analyzing the level of risk. While their solution was novel, unfortunately it was all computed off-line; would be nice to see how that could used in real-time to pick wise obstacle avoidance paths.

Photo May 21, 11 29 08
Sikorsky S-97 Raider mock-up

There were two papers, both pretty good, on autonomous autorotation. The first, by Scherer, presented a landing-site selection routine that took RRT* and modified it to produce multiple alternate planned routes, allowing a pilot to select the one he likes the best. Grande and Langelaan were interested in developing a safe-landing set in windy conditions to give piloted and unpiloted helicopters a zone of states to shoot for during the glide phase in order ensure safe final flare and touchdown.

DLR gave a presentation on their PRM-based path planner and trajectory-smoothing techniques; unfortunately I had to miss half of it and the two cyclocopter presentations for student-volunteer duty.

This morning, Sanjiv Singh gave an excellent presentation on obstacle avoidance and landing-site selection that they had also performed using real aircraft–in this case, an MD500 (I think). Very polished presentation.

Other presentations this morning included one from an Arizona State student who was using simulated ADS-B to perform midair collision avoidance maneuvers. Another showed a new SLAM modification to keep the map straight without loop closure. And finally, there were two nearly identical presentations on using vision to estimate ship deck state in high seas.

One final note that was pretty neat: It didn’t occur to me that all of the giants of the helicopter theory and thought would be here, so it came as a bit of a shock when I read the nametag next to me and it was the writer of my helicopter textbook. Additionally there was Ray Prouty, Wayne Johnson, and Mark Tischler. It was kind of like the Oscars red carpet for helicopter nerds.

Me and the Bit
Me and the Bit

Remotely piloted helicopter saves a life in Canada

This is the first incident I’ve seen of a UAV having a direct and immediate effect on saving a person’s life. A motorist who had been in a car wreck was wandering in a daze; he called the police but had no idea where he was. The police traced his location from the cell signal but could not locate him when they arrived on scene, as he had wandered away and passed out near a tree. A quadrotor with FLIR onboard was called to assist; the ability of the aircraft to cover a lot of ground, look from a unique vantage point, and be ultra-responsive to the direction of on the ground police made it an invaluable asset, without which the motorist may have died from hypothermia. Instead, the police easily found him in the UAV’s thermal imagery, picked him up and took him to the hospital.

Man found by remote-controlled UAV (w/ video) | The Star Phoenix

Training Little Engineers with Legos

This article came across Make Magazine’s blog the other day, and resonated with me for a couple of reasons.

First, my mother took us (Robin and I plus our 4 and 5-year old) to Legoland at Phipps Plaza, and except for a couple of minor things, I was disappointed. To their credit, I appreciated the race car build and the Lego Academy. (Side note–there are dudes whose whole job it is to build crazy awesome things with Legos–how sweet would that be?) But other than that, there wasn’t a whole lot of room for creativity. Even in the store portion, there were nothing but Star Wars and Batman and Harry Potter kits. No buckets of bricks or starter kits. Where is the creativity in that?

The other thing that hit me was I found out this weekend about the experience my nephews are having in their private school. For the 7th grade, the school offers an elective in robotics–fantastic! But then I found out that the school limits the elective to the “smart” kids who meet a minimum math grade. I think the school is way off-base here. The excitement of building a robot is EXACTLY the kind of thing that could get a kid motivated to work hard and figure the math out. This robotics course forms the school’s team for Lego challenge.

This is the part where I want to prescribe how to fix it–but I don’t really know. The best I can do is to get my kids the plain Legos and play along with them, and not put up with schools that treat 7th grade as a college entrance exam.

Iowa will be able to live off of wind power?

IEEE Spectrum reports that Iowa is leading the way in wind power:

Iowa, already impressive in its wind power progress, continues its march into the energy future with one of it’s two main utilities announcing plans to build US $1.9 billion worth of new turbines by 2015.

This is pretty impressive, given that they are already 3rd nationally in wind power after Texas and California but much smaller. In fact, they already appear to have enough capacity to power almost the whole state:

According to Iowa’s own wind industry group, the installed capacity is enough for about 1.1 million homes; guess how many households the state even has. Yup, just over 1.2 million.

That’s pretty cool–I don’t have any illusions that we could be 100% supplied by wind, but it’s still nice to take a good chunk of our energy eggs and put them in a different basket.


Iowa Utility to Build Another Gigawatt of Wind Power by 2015 | IEEE Spectrum

Unmanned KMax in Afghanistan

Just read a great article on the Marine Corps’ use of two unmanned KMax helicopters for cargo delivery. Some takeways:

Photo courtesy Lockheed Martin via flickr
  • The system has been successful, flying missions at a) lower cost, b) lower risk to equipment, and c) zero risk to crewmembers. This is in contrast to the manned cargo aircraft in use–the CH-53 and the CH-47 needed for the hot and high missions–which are big, powerful, expensive, and require a large crew to fly and maintain.
  • There are some drawbacks: night time flights only, fair weather only, 80 mile radius, 53 mile line-of sight communication radius, 4,500 lb cargo limit, and (I assume) very benign flight maneuvers. Most especially, there are only two airframes.
  • The use of Playstation controllers as an interface is clever, both from a training/familiarity standpoint and from a logistics standpoint.
  • The author rightly points out that this could be the dawn of an age where UAVs expand outside the realm of just spying and killing.
  • This description of performance is a good case study in the quest to define levels of autonomy. Things the aircraft can do for itself: takeoff, maintain stable hover and forward flight, descend and drop off cargo, and presumably execute loss of communication procedures. What it can’t seem to do yet: land, perform high performance maneuvers, autorotate or adapt to component failure, decide when to descend for cargo drop, avoid bad weather, avoid obstacles, avoid other aircraft, maintain nap-of-the-earth or low visibility flight. There is still a long way to the day when all the operator needs to do is push a button and supervise hands-off.

Drone cargo helicopters prove worth in Afghanistan, leading way to civilian uses |


When I saw Robert Wood presenting his work at Tech last year I was both amazed and pessimistic. The fabrication technique he developed to manufacture his robo-flies was phenomenal–a combination of 3D printing, origami, and children’s pop-up books. However, his flight experiments to that point had been strictly one dimensional and I had doubts he could achieve stable free flight. Well, it appears I was wrong.

To be fair, this looks like the flight is achieved with off board computation, power, and sensing. But, bravo–this is a really great accomplishment nonetheless.

Fly-Sized Drone Uses Micro-Energy to Buzz | Mashable

Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded?

A good piece by NPR.  They interview an entrepreneur who is building autonomous planes for medical aid–a guy who, unlike some, is trying to follow the rules.  However, he can’t test his system because of the FAA’s inability to distinguish between a Predator and a 3-lb styrofoam aircraft.  Some telling quotes:

“Quite frankly, I could do what I need to do in a cow pasture,” he says. “I just need some legal and efficient way to test this aircraft.”


“A lot of our universities that are developing (UAV) training programs, they’re buying a vehicle from Latvia,” he says. “I think I could compete on that, but I just can’t test mine in the United States.”


Will Bureaucracy Keep The U.S. Drone Industry Grounded? | NPR