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

By John Keller

FARNBOROUGH, England–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.

The Skate unmanned aircraft system (UAS) was among the unmanned aircraft being shown in the special UAV pavilion in July at the UAV pavilion at the Farnborough International Airshow in Farnborough, England.

Yes, they flew UAVs indoors.

It's safe though. Think of a basketball court–no make that a half-court–enclosed on four sides by white netting to keep spectators safe. That was the demonstration area in Farnborough's UAV pavilion. Now imagine the black flying pizza box buzzing around the enclosed half court, and you have it. One person flew the 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.

But you should have seen 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 to thump down, popping off both of its propellers, and sometimes one of its vertical stabilizer fins pops off, too. As it turns out, the operator just fits 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 links imagery and other sensor data from the Skate UAV to a ruggedized PC that is already part of the soldier's standard gear.

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

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