HAIFA, Israel, 28 April 2005. Combining a patented computer program and Global Positioning Satellite (GPS) with an existing minicopter, an Israeli company has developed an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that could be the next homeland security defense tool.
The craft does not have a pilot -- not even one who controls it remotely from the ground. All the aspects of flight -- takeoff, hovering and landing -- are completely autonomous, making this UAV a first.
"This is the first system that can guide a helicopter through its entire flight without any human intervention," says Amir Rochman, CEO of Steadicopter, Ltd., the company that developed the UAV. "There are miniature helicopters that can be flown with remote control or from a ground-control station, but none that are completely autonomous like ours."
He adds that even the big-budget developments coming out of the U.S. Army and Navy are controlled by an operator in a ground station.
The technology for Steadicopter was conceived in 1999 at the Technion-Israel Institute of Technology, and was nurtured in the Technion Entrepreneurial Incubator Company. Its first prototype was stolen last fall, but a new one is ready for demonstration.
Currently, the system uses a 5-foot, 18-pound minicopter, but the technology can work with any helicopter, from hobby-sized to a full-sized, rotating-wing aircraft. Before the flight, an operator -- who needs no special training -- enters flight instructions and routes into a standard PC. The helicopter flies at an altitude of a few hundred feet with an operating range of six miles from ground control for about 90 minutes, and can adjust to winds of up to 25 knots. Changes in direction, flight speed and altitude can be made throughout the flight. The helicopter can be outfitted with cameras that survey areas up to 8.8 miles away, and transmit real time video images.
Steadicopter has both security and civilian uses. Military surveillance, search and rescue, and inspection of damage in hard-to-reach places hit by terror or natural disasters are among its many security options. Civilian uses include high-tension wire inspections, forest fire monitoring, media coverage of live events, and traffic control.
Traditional unmanned helicopters have good vertical maneuverability and the advantage of being able to remain in one position for long time periods. However, due to the need for expensive equipment and highly trained operators, they are mostly limited to use by the military and the movie industry.
The most important advantage of the Steadicopter is that anyone can "fly" it, eliminating the need for a trained pilot or operator. In addition, it can fly anywhere within its range, and is not limited to the operator's field of vision. In case of lost communication, it will continue its mission, return and land safely. Another advantage is its relatively low price. The current model will cost $125,000-$150,000. In addition to the minicopter, the package includes a camera with real-time transmission capabilities, a PC with special software, and a monitor.
The company has raised about $1 million from the Israel Ministry of Defense for a joint project with Israel Aircraft Industries, and from private investors for the technology development phase. Now it needs to raise an additional $1.5 million from private investors. The current market for UAVs is about $2 billion, and is expected to double over the next decade, according to a study by the Teal Group, a research company specializing in the aerospace and defense industries. For more information, see www.steadicopter.com.
The Technion-Israel Institute of Technology is Israel's leading science and technology university. Home to the country's only winners of the Nobel Prize in science, it commands a worldwide reputation for its pioneering work in nanotechnology, computer science, biotechnology, water-resource management, materials engineering, aerospace and medicine. The majority of the founders and managers of Israel's high-tech companies are alumni. Based in New York City, the American Technion Society is the leading American organization supporting higher education in Israel, with 17 offices around the country.