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Unmanned fighter drones, medical delivery drones take center stage

A drone-versus-piloted attack aircraft, deliveries of medical supplies in North Carolina, unmanned meal deliveries in India and anti-drone protection for Kennedy space complex are just a small sample of unmanned air vehicle news this month.

Even the U.K. BBC TV network picked up the news over the weekend that the U.S. Air Force (USAF) plans to pit an unmanned drone against a manned fighter aircraft, maybe even as early as July next year. The candidate fighter drone is thought to come from the USAF’s “Skyborg” research program — a wide ranging initiative aimed at incorporating artificial intelligence (AI) into unmanned vehicles which can out-think and out-fight the opposition.

The logic seems to be that if you could somehow ‘can’ all the experience of today’s pilots – somehow distill all their knowledge and stuff it into electronic memory and have AI use this data-base – then an unmanned fighter drone would somehow do better in combat against a hostile, manned aircraft. Probably a good idea, but how could it be made to work?

The Loyal Wingman in its first test flight. (Photo: U.S. Air Force 88th Air Wing Public Affairs)

The Loyal Wingman in its first test flight. (Photo: U.S. Air Force 88th Air Wing Public Affairs)

And the prime candidate to try all this is out could be the “Loyal Wingman” which was recently rolled out by its manufacturer Kratos. With a target price-tag of only $2 million each (for qty 100), USAF apparently foresees a future with lots of these “disposable’”guys accompanying the manned F-18, F-35, F-22 and future fighters into battle. Perhaps the airborne pilot could even coach his unmanned colleagues through an upcoming dogfight, augmenting the onboard knowledge carried by the drone? Seriously Si-Fi sounding stuff, but its apparently already well on its way.

And would current day autonomous drone operations count as using AI? Well such a drone uses a GNSS nav system and an operator pre-programs a route prior to launch, which the drone then refers to when airborne — even dropping off a package on cue when it arrives at destination, and turning round to fly the same route back home. So referring to an on-board waypoint data-base and executing a beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) flight on its own — its somewhat limited AI, but the drone is independently doing a task once instructed.

Which brings us to the recent pandemic-related operations that operator Zipline has just begun running out of Kannapolis, North Carolina – from a vacant lot near a Novant Health logistics center — to the Huntersville Medical Center. With only regular capability to operate in accordance with Part 107 regulations, Zipline applied for a waiver to not only fly around population centers, but also to fly beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS). The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) granted emergency authorization for Zipline to support Novant’s hospital and clinic COVID-19 response.

Photo: sarawuth702/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Photo: sarawuth702/iStock / Getty Images Plus/Getty Images

Fortunately, Zipline is coming off over four years of proven medical drone delivery operations in Rwanda and Ghana, so they have very credible capability to perform similar deliveries in North Caroline. Its possible that FAA took this excellent operational record into account in granting this Zipline waiver.

Nevertheless, Novant and Zipline plan to continue with their efforts to gain full FAA Part 135 authorization to regularly operate this medical package delivery service to Hospitals and Clinics in North Carolina. Meanwhile, this first of a kind long-range BVLOS service in the U.S. will continue to gather more airborne miles each day and demonstrate good confidence in safety and reliability. With over 1.8 million miles already flown during their African medical delivery service, Zipline is apparently coming from an established baseline capability.

In India — a country which has been testing drone services for the express deliveries of food to people’s homes — looks like they are ready to see if drones can be given the OK to operate all the time. The Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) has authorized a consortium of 13 companies to test drones flying BVLOS over longer distances to complete deliveries. DGCA apparently may have also been motivated to speed up shipments during the COVID-19 pandemic and SpiceXpress, one of the consortium members, will initially focus on delivering medical emergency/essential supplies after the trials are complete.

But overall, the objective for most consortium members is to get approval for meal deliveries by drone to become common practice in India. This will depend on the reports which the trial participants are required to submit to Airport Authority of India by September 30, 2020 from at least 100 hours of flight operations — hopefully without any serious incidents.

Not sure if everyone watched the SpaceX/NASA Demo-2 launch of the manned Dragon capsule on May 30, but I was glued to the NASA TV broadcast throughout. A truly significant event with not only a manned launch to the ISS by a commercial company, but a launch from Kennedy Space Center pad 39A — the first in nine years from U.S. soil.

Turns out we managed to get a ‘drone’ angle into the launch — or actually an absence of pesky drone interlopers at the launch site. Kennedy has been operating an anti-drone system for several previous launches — detecting and alerting any drone activity within the restricted airspace volume around pads 39A &B.

A mobile, all-weather Moog “Gauntlet” detection/alert system has been deployed for some time at Kennedy, watching for anything drone like within the confines of the launch area. The system is apparently visual, records evidence and provides alert indications over a secure VPN network, presumably to launch control and Kennedy security.

So this month we have news of a potential UAV-manned aircraft showdown, long-range drone deliveries of medical supplies in the U.S., Indian delivery drone qualification, and a drone detection system in use to protect the recent SpaceX crewed launch to the ISS. There is a lot going on, with high levels of complexity and good news in the fight against the pandemic for at least one hospital group in North Carolina.

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