July 3, 2012
Is there anything robots can’t do? They operate on land, in the air, and at sea, and come in an astonishing range of shapes and sizes. Some weigh less than an insect, while others are large enough to carry several tons of bombs. For the military, they provide reconnaissance, defuse roadside bombs, and strike high-value targets. On the civilian side, a flying robot provided the first detailed video of the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant after it was damaged in the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami. Robots are helping The International Group for Historic Aircraft Recovery search for Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Electra. And, as more than three million YouTube viewers have seen, they can even play the theme song from the James Bond franchise.
But one thing they do have difficulty with is recovering after collisions. That’s where AirBurr, a flying robot, has an advantage. Its flexible body protects the robot should it crash into a wall. And if it falls to the ground, AirBurr—using a leg design inspired by locusts and beetles—can right itself and continue flying. (During flight the robot’s four carbon-fiber legs are rolled up.)
“It all started when we looked at insects, and how they fly,” says researcher Adam Klaptocz, in EPFL’s video, below. “Even though they manage to avoid most obstacles, they still manage to fly into windows and fly into walls, yet it’s ok. They don’t break. They fall to the ground, they get back up again, and they keep flying.” The main application of this type of robot, says Klaptocz, is to explore hard-to-reach places where humans—or even other robots—can’t navigate, such as irradiated nuclear power plants, caves, and collapsed mines.
While some flying robots can try to avoid collisions by using on-board sensors that allow it to create a map of the environment, such platforms are heavier, fragile, and typically don’t survive any accidental crashes. The AirBurr team decided to create a robot that would withstand routine bumps and jolts. This approach allows them to use cheaper, less-complex sensors, and lightens the robot’s weight.
Learn more about AirBurr and the work of researchers Adrien Briod, Adam Klaptocz, Przemyslaw Mariusz Kornatowski, and Jean-Christophe Zufferey.
April 24, 2012
We caught wind of Yves “Jetman” Rossy back in 2008 when he used his jet-powered wing to cross the English Channel. He kept working on the design and practicing his flying; he was featured on the popular British show Top Gear earlier this month, and just released this pretty impressive video. It seems like our perfect dream of a personal jetpack is missing just one thing: take-off from the ground. But don’t worry, Rossy is working on it.
Update: Oops, it looks like that video was taken down from Vimeo. Instead, enjoy some of these earlier videos: Jetman flying with a couple of actual jets, and some spectacular scenes while flying over the Grand Canyon.
April 4, 2012
Terrafugia recently flight-tested its prototype “roadable aircraft,” the Transition, accompanied by much media buzz about the next revolution in transportation [YAWN].
I applaud Terrafugia’s up-front marketing strategy: they have always marketed the Transition to pilots and those who are willing to earn a pilot’s license. The company has never claimed that road-ragers can untangle themselves from traffic jams by pressing a GO UP button in their Transitions and VTOL-ing up and away, like a scene from The Fifth Element.
But here’s the catch: All involved admit a flying car tends to combine the worst of both vehicles, so for $279,000, you get an underperforming car AND an underperforming airplane in one silly-looking vehicle. In its FAQs, Terrafugia notes, “If bad weather is encountered en route, the pilot can land and drive without worrying about ground transportation…”
Sounds nifty keen-o, but most pilots planning a cross-country flight will check the weather on their route, and prepare to file an instrument flight plan if need be; if they lack an instrument rating, they will schedule the flight for another day. I doubt they find much of an advantage in buying a so-so airplane with which they can land in case of bad weather and continue on in a so-so car. Why not just drive your car to the airport and fly your airplane, like pilots have done since dinosaurs roamed the earth? Not to be a Luddite, but If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it, especially with a $279,000 patch kit.
On the other hand, Maverick, the ITEC flying car, does make sense for missionary pilots, the military, poaching patrols, and powerline surveys. It’s a straightforward all-terrain vehicle with a parasail-type wing in which one can navigate dunes and grassland and skim over floodplains or other deal-breakers — for about $90,000.
I’m not bad-mouthing Terrafugia: their hearts and minds are in the right place. It’s just that the idea of a flying car has been around for decades, and there’s a reason why we don’t have one by now: no market beyond novelty buyers.
October 3, 2011
Teams gathered their experimental planes in Santa Rosa, California last week for a competition of their environmental industriousness. The Green Flight Challenge awards some serious prize money to promote what they hope is the future of flight: quiet, fuel-efficient, and with low-emissions. The aircraft, powered by green fuels like hydrogen or electricity, must fly 200 miles in less than two hours and use less than one gallon of fuel per occupant, or the equivalent in electricity, to be eligible for the $1.35 million first place purse.
Thirteen teams signed up for the Challenge, but only three teams made it to the actual race without dropping out or being disqualified. Performed over the course of a week, the challengers must meet requirements in three separate tests: noise, performance, and speed.
Two teams were up to the task, fulfilling all requirements. The electric powered Pipistrel scored first place, announced at the awards ceremony Monday afternoon. According to its website:
The Taurus Electro G2 [model of Pipistrel] can use a shorter runway, climbs faster and performs much better than the gasoline-powered version when it comes to high altitude operations. All this is possible thanks to the specially-developed emission-free Pipistrel’s 40kW electric power-train.
One other plane was up to the challenge, though with slightly lower scores than the Pipistrel: the e-Genius. Also a two-seater electric plane, the German plane uses a 60-kilowatt motor and is backed by Airbus. Though it didn’t take top honors, the team will still take home $120,000 for second place and an additional $10,000 for the Lindbergh Quiet Aircraft Prize.
The Green Flight Challenge was founded by the Comparative Aircraft Flight Efficiency (CAFE) Foundation and is sponsored by Google, while NASA provides the total $1.65 million in cash prizes through their Centennial Challenges Program.
September 12, 2011
This summer the X-47B unmanned combat aircraft made its first arrested landing on the USS Eisenhower. Well, actually it was an F/A-18D Hornet (left) operating as a surrogate, using the software and avionics of the X-47B. And a pilot was in the cockpit, or, in Navy parlance, “in the loop.” Off-camera and well off-ship, a less glamorous King Air fitted with the same control system set down smoothly on a land-based runway.
Both landings brought the Navy a step closer to meeting its mission goal of an “autonomous, low-observable, relevant unmanned aircraft.” The surrogate tests pose lower risk than landing a real X-47B without prior sea trials, and at far lower cost.
Today’s carrier approaches are flown manually by a pilot using visual cues and a radio dispatch, usually sent from the Landing Signal Officer (LSO) on deck. Most of the information is relayed by voice, the rest by handheld flags, which can introduce both delay and errors. The purpose of the UCAS-D (Unmanned Combat Air System-Demonstration) program is to digitize all communications and navigation data, while minimizing the new hardware and training requirements for the awkward human component.
Both the aircraft and the ship’s control tower will use GPS navigation. Eventually the carrier’s LSO will fold up his flags and transmit all instructions via a digital network integrated with the primary flight control tower on deck. Digital control will also reach the ship’s ready room below, which may have no pilots in the traditional sense.
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