Launch Stories provides warfighters, sponsors, partners, and taxpayers with an inside look at the technologies and research developed by small businesses working with the Air Force.
Sponsored by the Air Force Research Laboratory (AFRL), this new forum highlights the advanced tools and innovations that drive US competitiveness and make service members safer, better informed, and more efficient than ever. These are their stories.
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Congress established the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) program in 1982 to strengthen the role of smaller businesses in federally-funded research and development. This program stimulates technological innovation, uses small businesses to meet Federal R&D needs, and increases private sector competition, productivity, and economic growth.
The Small Business Technology Transfer (STTR) program, a sister program to SBIR, was established by Congress in 1992 to encourage small business partnerships with Universities, Federally Funded Research and Development Centers, and qualified non-profit research institutions.
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Imagine that you are part of a security team keeping the peace in an urban area in an overseas theater. You need to monitor gathering spots for suspected insurgents and common transportation routes for terrorists placing improvised explosives. How do you protect the local friendly population and U.S. forces without exposing yourself to the enemy? Answer: The Urban Beat Cop. Set them up on rooftops in the area, designate areas you want to monitor, and safely find out what the enemy is up to.
Urban settings offer huge challenges for deploying air vehicles. The landscape is varied and the targets of interest are often buried within the terrain. Mobility of units in the area is made difficult by traffic and constricted streets. Small unmanned drones hold great promise for providing safer and more regular monitoring of urban areas in conflict regions. To meet this need, Aurora Flight Sciences has previously developed a family of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems (SUAS) called SKATE tailored for use in urban or crowded environments. Now we have turned SKATE into the Urban Beat Cop, a system that can easily be installed on a city rooftop allowing the user to program the system remotely and command it to takeoff autonomously to survey a region. After the mission is complete, it automatically returns to the takeoff location, lands, and begins recharging. Multiple systems in an area can provide constant coverage, providing eyes in the sky without boots on the ground!
Skate comes in for a landing.
UBC Skate is able to land and recharge itself
UBC Skate prepares to take off autonomously
A system for remotely operating a Small Unmanned Aircraft System (SUAS) in an urban environment is needed to allow safer and more regular surveillance of urban conflict areas. Conventional urban monitoring requires either high cost, large aircraft, or troops on the ground. High cost assets are often unavailable. In that case, the only option is to risk troops on the ground, leading to the potential danger of asymmetric threats like IEDs or pulse ambush. Existing SUAS platforms are not equipped for the urban environment and are unable to takeoff and land in constrained spaces or maneuver within confined areas. Not only can the Skate airframe takeoff and land within constrained urban areas, but it is highly maneuverable. Combined with the Urban Beat Cop system, it forms a capable, urban-centric, SUAS.
Aurora Flight Sciences worked with AFRL to outline the problem and define the Urban Beat Cop system concept. Aurora and AFRL agreed that the Skate SUAS would be an ideal platform to fit this need and after numerous conceptual ideas, Aurora's Small UAS engineering team, which is based in Cambridge, MA, came up with a solution. This team developed a novel takeoff and landing mechanism that would be based on a powered charging wire and would result in leveraging the maneuverability and flexibility of the Skate SUAS.
"The Urban Beat Cop program brought new capabilities to our team, allowing us to branch into new areas of UAS research such as image processing and vision based control systems." — James Peverill
The Urban Beat Cop system contains a ground-mounted landing pad and specially configured Skate aircraft. The landing pad consists of a powered wire that is strung between two secured poles. An automated charging system, integrated with Skate's GCS, is attached to the wire. A solar blanket powers the ground control system and charges the aircraft's batteries, allowing continuous 24-hour operation. The aircraft is equipped with a deployable landing hook, enabling it to passively latch onto the landing wire during an approach. Lastly, an active release allows the aircraft to run the motors up to takeoff power before releasing from the wire. During system operation, the remote user, from anywhere in the world, can connect to the system through the internet or over a tactical network. They will select a location (or multiple locations) to be surveyed on a map display and once entered, begin the mission. The air vehicle will autonomously launch itself from the wire and will fly to the desired locations, all while supplying live video feed to the remote user. The user can control the aircraft remotely while it is in flight, changing the orbit duration or commanding it to go to a different location. When the user ends the mission, or when the batteries are exhausted, the system returns to the takeoff location and automatically lands itself on the wire for recharging. Multiple systems can be setup to allow the user to have persistent surveillance of a difficult area.
The Urban Beat Cop system, if deployed, would provide remote, continuous and automated surveillance of urban conflict areas without requiring troops to put themselves in harms way. Some of the technology from Urban Beat Cop has already made its way to Afghanistan, dramatically improving the image quality of the Skate SUAS. This has allowed warfighters the ability to see, in greater detail, the threat environment in the immediate area, maximizing the ISR utility of the Skate SUAS.
The technology developed through this SBIR radically advanced the company's in-house image processing and camera interface expertise. In addition, the extensive system testing and integration improvements took the Skate SUAS to a new level of product maturity and made it ready for deployment in Afghanistan.
The UBC project was a highly innovative piece of unmanned systems research, creating technology and improving the state of the art of US unmanned system capabilities. As part of the program, the Skate SUAS was equipped with a highly innovative miniature imaging processing system, capable of simultaneous digital stabilization, H264 video encoding, as well as running custom image processing algorithms. This system represents a breakthrough capability in a vehicle of this size.
The work on the UBC program initiated the development of the SRI Sarnoff DL Micro. This miniature image processing system was custom-specified for integration with the Skate for use on the Urban Beat Cop system. It also improved the quality and stability of the system's sensor feed, benefiting the warfighters who used it in Afghanistan. The UBC program drove intense debugging and testing of this product, which is now available as a product from SRI Sarnoff.
The Urban Beat Cop system was a highly aggressive technical goal with serious technical challenges. Although the full system is not ready for transition to the field, many of the technology pieces were immediately transitioned as part of Skate's deployment to Afghanistan in March 2013.
Cambridge, MA and headquarters Manassas, VA
Aurora Flight Sciences is a leader in the development and manufacturing of advanced unmanned systems and aerospace vehicles. Aurora is headquartered in Manassas, VA and operates production plants in Bridgeport, WV and Columbus, MS; and a Research and Development Center in Cambridge, MA.
Long Endurance Hovering Surveillance Platform / Urban Beat Cop
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