Volume 01 | Issue 15 | September 14, 2020
Autonomous Cargo, Hydrogen Infrastructure & Military Onboard Computing

Welcome back to the Future of Aerospace, where we dive each week into a few of the trends rapidly defining the next generation of aircraft and aerial markets.

The Federal Aviation Administration hosted its Zoom virtual meeting of the Commercial Space Transportation Advisory Committee (COMSTAC) today, with a keynote address from Major General DeAnna M. Burt, Director of Operations and Communications for the U.S. Space Force.

Today also marks the start of the 2020 Air Force Association (AFA) virtual Air, Space and Cyber conference. Look out for coverage on both of these events in upcoming additions of the Future of Aerospace. In other news, Aerion Corp. moved another step closer to bringing supersonic travel back to business aviation, by announcing a new flight deck avionics and connectivity supplier partnership with Honeywell Aerospace for its AS2 business jet.

THIS WEEK: We look at the various approaches to unmanned cargo transportation being worked on and their questions surrounding their viability (Autonomy & AI).

A California-based green startup featuring a team of former Airbus, Google, and UTC executives believe they can bring hydrogen power to regional turboprop aircraft by the mid-2020s (Electrification and Sustainability).

And the Air Force Research Lab (AFRL) is ready to start testing the use of a new autonomous targeting pod for the MQ-9 Reaper…indicative of a larger trend toward greater compute power onboard aircraft to enable autonomy, rather than relying on communication with ground systems. (Autonomy & AI).

Thanks for reading.

—The Future of Aerospace Team
Searching for Markets in Autonomous Cargo Delivery
Image: Autoflight

There is broad agreement
that cargo applications of unmanned vertical takeoff and landing aircraft (and drones) will reach market at scale before passenger transport, but companies in the space have different views on how and where they can add value.

Some companies are focused on last-mile delivery of small packages such as medicine and packages, while others emphasize middle-mile movement of spare parts and other goods to factories or distribution centers.
  • Sabrewing, Pipistrel, Elroy Air, MightyFly and Autoflight are among those seeking to certify a new, purpose-built airframe for unmanned VTOL cargo applications. Autoflight unveiled its V400, an aircraft with a 29.5-foot wingspan and maximum payload of 220 lbs, yesterday at Drone World Congress in Shenzhen, China. (The V400 looks very similar in design to Elroy Air’s Chaparral.)

    Pipistrel’s recently-revealed Nuuva family of unmanned electric cargo aircraft span both middle- and last-mile, with the V300 V300 able to carry 1,000 lbs at least 100 miles, targeting operating costs “10x more economic than helicopters.” A smaller V20 version, intended for last-mile delivery, has payload capacity of 44 lbs.

  • Meanwhile, Reliable Robotics and Xwing are focused on equipping existing airframes with autonomy, betting they’ll be able to certify their technology and begin operations sooner than entirely new airframes. Reliable Robotics recently revealed it conducted automated gate-to-gate flights with a Cessna 172 in 2019 and is currently working with a larger Cessna 208 owned and operated by FedEx Express.

  • Zipline, Flytrex, Alphabet’s Wing, UPS, Vayu, Amazon and many others are focused on various applications of smaller payload services — typically referred to more as “drone delivery” than VTOL cargo delivery — with many focused on medical supplies or last-mile package delivery. Walmart recently announced two pilot programs; one with Flytrex in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and the other with Zipline servicing a 50-mile radius from a store in northwest Arkansas.
The big question: How, where, and for what industries will value truly be created by aerial delivery services?

Hannan Parvizian, founder and CEO of Volansi, told us he sees reducing downtime — at a manufacturing facility or oil rig, for example — as a huge opportunity.

“The biggest use case for Volansi's drones is to get time-critical parts and supplies from where they are stored to where they are needed as quickly as possible to minimize project downtime.”

Read more on trends in autonomous cargo delivery here.
Universal Hydrogen Eyes Disruptive New Concept to Power Turboprop Aircraft by Mid 2020s
Image: Universal Hydrogen

Distribution of hydrogen power to regional turboprop aircraft
could become a reality by the mid 2020s, according to a disruptive new California-based green startup that is already talking to airlines and airplane manufacturers about their concept.

Universal Hydrogen CEO Paul Eremenko and COO Jason Chua explained to Aviation Today how they envision using the global intermodal freight network to eliminate the need for infrastructure and provide hydrogen power for passenger carrying regional airline flights in the near future during a recent interview.

“A really important point to just make very clear is that we're not an airplane company and we do not aspire to be an airplane company. We are a hydrogen logistics company and we would like to serve as many different aviation market segments with hydrogen as possible,” Eremenko said.

Universal Hydrogen’s vision:
  • A lightweight, modular capsule that is “2X more weight-efficient than traditional hydrogen storage” that will transport hydrogen as dry freight from the point of consumption to airports where where they’re installed on aircraft.

  • Rather than trying to develop the infrastructure required to store, develop and distribute hydrogen, their capsule converts hydrogen to dry freight to enable transportation from the point of consumption to airports where aircraft need refueling.

  • Their design takes advantage of the concept of intermodal freight, which uses containers that can be transported through a variety of vehicles including ships, semi-trailer trucks, and trains.
“Initially, we will focus on the regional turboprop aircraft segment. We think that it's a good proof point for anything bigger. Eventually we want to be able to tackle the single aisle market because that is where the majority of the world's passenger miles are flown, and that's where the majority of fuel burn and carbon emissions happen,” Chua said.

Entry into service within the next five years is envisioned by Eremenko and his co-founders with a three phased process.
  • Over the next year, under Phase A the hydrogen capsules will be developed and tested at full-scale to include an end-to-end demonstration of their intermodal power distribution concept from the point of production to an “aircraft-scale ground testbed for fuel cell powertrain.”

  • Phase B includes achievement of air transport certification for their capsules prior to Phase C: “mass industrialization of the capsules and FAA certification of a hydrogen-powered regional turboprop carrying 40 passengers with up to 500 nm range,” the startup notes on their information sheet.
Read the full story here.
Testing Begins for Condor Pod to Enable AI-Powered MQ-9 Reaper Targeting
Image: GA-ASI

The U.S. Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Agile Condor wide area surveillance pod is to undergo classified testing over the next year after a recent flight on General Atomics’ MQ-9 Reaper, according to the Pentagon’s Joint Artificial Intelligence Center (JAIC).

Syracuse-based SRC Inc., which developed the Agile Condor pod, said that it uses low-power, neuromorphic computers to process data onboard a drone and relay relevant information to military forces quickly.

“The Agile Condor pod is a critical component of a lot of different programs of which we’re part,” U.S. Army Col. Brad Boyd, chief of joint warfighting operations for JAIC, told reporters on Sept. 10. “Our project, called Smart Sensor, is interacting with [Project] Maven as well as the Air Force on developing the Agile Condor pod capability to enable essentially autonomous tracking of whatever you want on the battlefield, theoretically.”
  • General Atomics Aeronautical Systems, Inc.(GA-ASI), with the support of SRC Inc., successfully integrated and flew the Air Force Research Laboratory’s (AFRL) Agile Condor Pod on an MQ-9 Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA) at GA-ASI’s Flight Test and Training Center in Grand Forks, North Dakota. (GA-ASI)

  • MQ-9s and other intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance assets face limitations due to reliance on ground stations and must return to bases to offload “time-sensitive” data, or are limited by the high-power and bandwidth required for the transfer of large data files.

  • Boyd said that Agile Condor will “help us get that MQ-9 to continue to be able to operate…Rather than just returning to base, it can continue to look at the targets it was looking at until the ground station is re-established.”

  • Agile Condor is to identify objects autonomously through its on-board Electro-optical/Infrared (EO/IR) sensor and GA-ASI’s Lynx® Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), according to GA-ASI.
While no unclassified Agile Condor demonstrations are scheduled, there will be classified testing over the next year, Boyd said.

Big picture: The Condor pod is another example of a trend towards greater onboard computing, particularly in military contexts. Anduril Technologies’ recently-released Ghost 4 small UAS is equipped with an onboard AI core capable of performing 32 trillion operations per second — a massive leap in capabilities for such a small UAS, but one that will enable significantly greater autonomous capabilities and teaming.

A statement from GA-ASI on the Condor pod: “High-powered computing at the edge enables autonomous target detection, identification and nomination at extended ranges and on-board processing reduces communication bandwidth requirements to share target information with other platforms. This is an important step towards greater automation, autonomous target detection, and rapid decision-making. GA-ASI will continue to work with AFRL to refine the capability and foster its transition to operational constructs that will improve warfighters’ ability to operate in contested or denied environments.”

Read more on the Condor pod here.
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