July 8, 2013
Space X released a video last Friday of a test launch for its prototype rocket, the reusable Grasshopper. The 10-story tall rocket takes off and — most impressively — lands vertically. As the video description notes:
Previous Grasshopper tests relied on the other rocket sensors but for this test, an additional, higher accuracy sensor was in the control loop. In other words, SpaceX was directly controlling the vehicle based on new sensor readings, adding a new level of accuracy in sensing the distance between Grasshopper and the ground, enabling a more precise landing.
Watching the rocket descend, perfectly stable, from more than 1,000 feet is impressive enough, but the video adds another nice whoa element, taken by a camera-equipped hexacopter hovering at just about the peak altitude Grasshopper reaches.
June 5, 2013
I’m starting to feel a little left out, not having my own UAV to experiment with. Even while their legality is still under consideration by the FAA, mini-drones have been turning up everywhere on the technological landscape, with new applications every day.
One of the latest, from a team at the University of Minnesota, is more about empowering people with neuromuscular problems than about flying. But you can easily see this being of interest to UAV pilots. The researchers have demonstrated for the first time the ability to fly a robot in 3D physical space by brain waves alone, using an electroencephalogram (EEG) rig attached to an operator’s scalp. Here’s a video that explains their work:
The Minnesota researchers had already shown that a virtual helicopter could be controlled by thoughts alone, but now they’ve demonstrated it with a real flying vehicle. Here’s their report in the Journal of Neural Engineering.
On a more mundane level, there’s also the “DomiCopter” ad from Domino’s Pizza, which joins (at least theoretically, since none are open for business yet) other flying food delivery services. No telling whether this will actually happen. It’s hard to picture dozens of these things buzzing around my neighborhood on a Friday night, occasionally colliding, raining black olives and crumbled sausage on the passersby. It makes for good YouTubing, though.
May 14, 2013
This morning, for the first time in history, a combat aircraft (correction: a research aircraft that will lead to a combat aircraft) with no pilot onboard took off from an aircraft carrier at sea.
The X-47B demonstrator launched from the USS George H.W. Bush off the coast of Virginia at 11:18 a.m., and flew to Naval Air Station Patuxent River in Maryland.
“Today we saw a small, but significant pixel in the future picture of our Navy,” said Vice Adm. David Buss, commander of the Naval Air Forces, in a released statement.
Next up on the list of milestones — flying approaches and landings on a pitching flight deck.
Update: On May 17 the X-47B did its first touch-and-go landing on a carrier.
April 11, 2013
You’re going to need a clock. That’s what the National Air and Space Museum wants to get across to visitors with its new permanent exhibit, Time and Navigation, opening tomorrow.
“If you want to know where you are, or if you want to know where you’re going, you need a reliable clock,” said Carlene Stephens, a curator at the National Museum of American History, which houses the Smithsonian’s collection of clocks and contributed to the exhibit. Appropriately, visitors enter the exhibit by walking under a beautiful blue and gold clock, in the “spirit of the early and truly magnificent European clocks,” says exhibit designer Heidi Eitel. She wanted to include the automaton clock that comes to life every quarter hour to tell “the story of when people began sharing time.”
The exhibit takes you through three eras, starting with Navigating at Sea, when sailors first used sextants and star charts to find their way across vast oceans. Though ships have had navigators since the 1600s, it wasn’t until the early 1800s that they had marine chronometers that kept reliable time at sea and allowed navigation with any precision. Galileo’s pendulum clock and an interactive 19th-century ship’s sextant that lets visitors navigate by the stars are highlights.
Next, the exhibit takes flight. Even aviation heros like Charles Lindbergh got lost before Navy Lieutenant Commander P.V.H. Weems developed air navigation techniques. Overhead, visitors can see the Lockheed Vega Winnie Mae, which Wiley Post and famed navigator Harold Gatty flew around the world in 1931 in just eight days — a feat that could not have been accomplished without precise location-determining skills.
In the third and final era, navigation gets three-dimensional as it moves into space. Throughout this section of the exhibit are star charts where Earth becomes just another potential destination on the map. Our education on space navigation starts with the story of NASA’s nine Ranger spacecraft, notorious for their failures to reach the moon, including two that completely missed the mark. But astronauts eventually made it to the surface, and visitors can see the Apollo sextant and space shuttle star tracker here. “When we go back into deep space,” said curator Andrew Johnston, “it’ll be very interesting to see how far we’ve come with navigation.” With the technology available today, the exhibit explains, spacecraft missions in 2012 were 100,000 times more accurate than they were in the 1960s.
Finally, the exhibit shows us how we navigate today. Atomic clocks (one is on view in case you need to set your watch) that keep time to three billionths of a second, GPS satellites that can be accessed from anywhere in the world, and smartphones that crunch all sorts of data have replaced chronometers and sextants and bulky books of charts. In fact, navigation today doesn’t even need people: Stanford’s driverless-car Stanley is also on display. It won DARPA’s 2005 Grand Challenge by navigating an off-road 132-mile race. But proving its necessity in our everyday modern lives, Time and Navigation ends with stories from today — a farmer, a fireman and a student explain how their livelihoods are affected by the technology developed since the first sailor located the North Star.
April 9, 2013
The U.S. Navy says it’s making better-than-expected progress on developing ship-borne lasers that can shoot down a UAV in flight — so much so that the service has accelerated plans to deploy a solid-state laser on a ship (the USS Ponce) at sea next year.
The reason isn’t hard to understand. “Our conservative data tells us a shot of directed energy costs under $1,” said Chief of Naval Research Rear Adm. Matthew Klunder in a press release. “Compare that to the hundreds of thousands of dollars it costs to fire a missile, and you can begin to see the merits of this capability.”
The video shows (from both points of view, and in animation) what happens when a solid-state laser takes aim at a remotely piloted target vehicle, during a test conducted in the waters off San Diego last year.
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