Flying the black pizza box: a new flavor of small UAV

THE FARNBOROUGH BLOG, 20 July 2010. Think of an extra-large black pizza box. Now put twin tails on it, a couple of magnetic-detachable electric-powered tiltrotor propellers, and a six-inch hollow nose for half a pound of cameras and other sensor payloads. Give it a remote control and digital downlink that connects to a Windows or Linux PC, and you have the Skate small unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) from Aurora Flight Sciences in Manassas, Va.

You can get a better idea what the thing looks like in the accompanying time-lapse photo from Aurora. The Skate unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was among the unmanned aircraft being shown in the special UAV pavilion this week at the UAV pavilion at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, England.

Yes, they're flying UAVs indoors.

It's safe though. Picture a basketball court -- no make that a half-court -- enclosed on four sides by white netting to keep spectators safe. That's the demonstration area in Farnborough's UAV pavilion. To complete the image, now imagine the black flying pizza box buzzing around the enclosed half court, and now you have it. One person was flying the pizza box ... er, Skate UAV by remote control and another was on a microphone headset doing narration.

The Skate UAV is made from a special material like Styrofoam that is popular with model airplanes today. It offers the simplicity and endurance of a fixed-wing aircraft, yet with vertical takeoff and landing with independently articulating motor pods, which enable the Skate to switch quickly between vertical and horizontal flight.

I suppose it's kind of like a model V-22 Osprey tiltrotor aircraft that the Marines use ... well, that is ... if the Osprey looked like a pizza box, that's black ... and ...

Never mind.

But you should see that Skate buzzing around the display hall at Farnborough. The controller can make that little thing go into a steep dive, come to stop like an insect, then zip almost straight up, and all within the confines of the basketball half-court. Imagine what it could do in applications like border and perimeter security.

It's kind of an ungainly thing when it lands, but it turns out to be no big deal; Aurora engineers have designed it that way. The craft thumps down, one or both of its propellers pop off, and sometimes one of its vertical stabilizer fins pop off. That's okay, though, as it turns out. The operator just pops them back on for another flight, or takes it apart in a few seconds and stows it in a backpack.

The radio control unit is small, and the small UAV links imagery and other sensor data to a ruggedized PC that is already part of the soldier's standard gear.

Aurora officials are coy on pricing for the Skate UAV. They say it's too expensive for the model airplane hobbyist, yet is less expensive than the AeroVironment RQ-11 Raven small UAV. I'm not sure what that means the Skate costs, but some of you out there must have some idea, so there it is.

The Skate UAV -- a black pizza box, by another name.

For more information contact Aurora Flight Sciences online at www.aurora.aero.

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