November 30, 2012
Score another one for the drones. Yesterday the U.S. Navy demonstrated the first-ever (land-based) catapult launch of a pilotless combat vehicle, when the X-47B Unmanned Combat Air System took off from a runway at Patuxent River, Maryland.
Earlier this week, another X-47B was loaded onto an aircraft carrier for sea trials. It won’t be long before unmanned vehicles are routinely performing carrier landings — a feat once reserved for only the nerviest pilots.
November 29, 2012
For 20 months during World War II, northern Italians were caught between the retreating Nazi front and invading Allied forces. As confusion reigned, one story circulated among civilians time and again: An elusive and unidentified airplane, nicknamed “Pippo,” was said to fly over northern Italy each night—solo—sometimes strafing and bombing the landscape, other times performing reconnaissance. In all of the accounts of Pippo found in newspapers, letters, diaries, and oral histories, not a single person claimed to have seen Pippo. But the aircraft’s distinctive sound made it easy to recognize.
The nicknaming of solitary night intruders wasn’t unusual, writes folklorist Alan Perry (Gettysburg College) in his 2003 article in the Journal of Folklore Research. Members of the U.S. Army Air Forces’ 416th Night Fighter Squadron, assigned to the Ninth Air Force in the European Theater of Operations, referred to the Junkers Ju-88 flying overhead as “Reccie Joe.” Marines who fought on Guadalcanal had the Japanese “Washing Machine Charlie” to deal with. And GI’s fighting in North Africa and Italy called the night fighter they heard “Bed-Check Charlie.” (“Bed-Check Charlie” also made an appearance during the Korean War.)
What made Pippo different was that your political allegiance determined his identity. For those who opposed the Germans, Pippo, says Perry, was a friendly Allied pilot conducting reconnaissance. For those upset that Italy had betrayed its former German ally, Pippo was a sinister German intent on dropping bombs.
Perry looked for evidence of lone fighters waging psychological warfare in northern Italy. He notes that in 1944, “night intruder missions became an integral part of Operation Strangle, an effort to destroy German attempts to reinforce ground troops.” Night fighter squadrons of both the RAF (the 255th, the 256th, and the 600th) and the U.S. Army Air Forces (the 414th, 416th, and 417th) were part of this effort. Could Pippo have been a Bristol Beaufighter, a Northrop P-61, or a de Havilland Mosquito? Some Italian historians lean toward the Mosquito.
An interesting footnote: During Perry’s research, he ran across a contemporary piece in the daily Il Giornale by correspondent Fausto Biloslavo. After the September 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, Biloslavo was sent to Afghanistan to cover the U.S.-led bombing of Afghan training camps and Taliban air defenses. Biloslavo writes, “The scheme for the raids is always the same: before the attack an airplane with normal wings, not delta shaped like the fighters, circles very high above the targets. It’s either a reconnoitering aircraft or an electronic jewel that interrupts enemy communications and perhaps advanced defense weapon systems. In fact, we’ve noticed that during the flight of Pippo, as we’ve nicknamed him, there is no way to use the satellite phones. Soon after, the bombers come in pairs of two and dive upon their targets.”
November 15, 2012
While fighter pilots risk being shot down, or, in the case of F-22 pilots, suffering oxygen deprivation, it turns out that one of the hazards of flying an unmanned drone is boredom—or at least that’s what researchers at MIT have concluded.
“You might park a UAV over a house, waiting for someone to come in or come out, and that’s where the boredom comes in,” said Mary “Missy” Cummings, quoted in a study released yesterday by MITNews.
Cummings, a former F/A-18 pilot, is the director of the Humans and Automation Lab in MIT’s department of aeronautics and astronautics. She and her team set up a UAV simulation in which operators monitored the activity of four UAVs during a four-hour shift. Each subject was videotaped, and researchers noted when the operators were engaged, and when they were distracted. Not surprisingly, the operator with the highest score was the one who paid the most attention during the simulation. “She’s the person we’d like to clone for a boring, low-workload environment,” Cummings said.
The next-best performers were distracted a whopping 30 percent of the time—either reading a book, getting up to find a snack, or checking their cellphones.
Is being an unmanned aerial vehicle operator that bad? According to CareerCast.com, the worst job of 2012 is lumberjack, followed by dairy farmer and—wait for it—enlisted military soldier. Other hellish jobs include newspaper reporter, meter reader, and conservationist.
In the MIT experiment, participants were asked to rank their personality traits, including extroversion, agreeableness, conscientiousness, neuroticism, and openness to experience. Top performers ranked “conscientiousness” as their strong trait. Sounds good, right? Maybe not. “You could have a Catch-22,” says Cummings. “If you’re high on conscientiousness, you might be good to watch a nuclear reactor, but whether these same people would be effective in such military settings is unclear.”
November 7, 2012
We’ve watched robotic flying insects steadily improve over the last couple of years — mostly in university laboratories funded by the defense department. Now a group of Georgia Tech researchers are trying to go commercial with their Dragonfly drone, which weighs only as much as a AA battery, but can compete (or so they say) with smartphone-controlled helicopters and quadrot0rs in terms of performance. If it works as well as it does in the video, this could be a hit.
You can reserve a basic (Alpha) version of the Dragonfly for $99 if you’re one of the first 50 contributors to their Indiegogo crowd-funding campaign, or wait ’til it’s sold in stores for $250.
August 16, 2012
The rocketeers at Masten Space Systems (see p. 3) are pretty happy with the Xombie they’ve created. The vertical take-off/vertical landing vehicle passed a big goal Tuesday: flying 750 meters downrange. As you can see in the video below, Xombie — which won Masten $150,000 from NASA and the X PRIZE for precision landing in the 2009 Lunar Lander Challenge — ascended over 475 meters before reorienting to travel to its destination at a little over 50 mph.
Founder and Chief Technology Officer Dave Masten said of the test, “I could not be happier.” As for Xombie’s next steps:
We are discussing going a bit faster and further downrange, but the real purpose of Xombie is to be useful as a testbed. Where we hope to go with this is enabling NASA, NASA contractors, and others to more effectively test their new technologies. Next for Xombie will be to fly similar trajectories but with new technologies to demonstrate that those technologies are ready for use in mission critical applications, such as landing on Mars.
JPL [one of Masten's clients for Xombie, among others] will be releasing their take on what they can do with Xombie in the near future and I don’t want to steal their thunder, so I won’t say much more along those lines.
Here’s another view of Xombie’s flight.
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