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.
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.
June 18, 2012
Captain Charlotte Madison (a pseudonym) was the first female Apache pilot in the British Army Air Corps. She completed two tours in Afghanistan, which she details in her 2010 book Dressed to Kill. In the excerpt below, Madison and her copilot, stationed in Kandahar, await clearance to perform an air test.
As we sit waiting for clearance on to the runway, ATC [Air Traffic Control] is busy and I can’t get a word in edgeways. I drum my fingers on the cockpit dashboard and Darwin whistles tunelessly. Seconds tick by, and the radios buzz with voices.
“Mayday Mayday Mayday, this is Death 23 Death 23 Death 23.”
An American man’s voice booms over the radio, and the first three words make everyone listening freeze.
Mayday is a call only made when the aircraft or the crew is in immediate peril, and everything stops to ensure the safety of the stricken crew. To have a Mayday emergency in a hostile environment is a crew’s worst nightmare.
“Shit,” we say together, reaching in tandem for our radio volume dials so that we can hear every word. I can practically feel every aircraft within a ten-mile radius listening in.
“Death 23, this is Kandahar Air Traffic, your Mayday call is acknowledged. Send your position and type of emergency,” the calm voice of the girl in ATC replies immediately.
Darwin and I hold our breath for the details. My heart beats against my harness straps, imagining if I was one of the crew inside Death.
“Roger, stand by.” Death’s voice is clear and slow—he doesn’t sound as stressed as I’d be.
“He sounds chilled out, doesn’t he?” Darwin notices.
“Well, it’s all recorded, isn’t it? You don’t want to sound like a Wiener when they listen to the tape at the Board of Inquiry, do you?” I stick up for Death. We used to sit around on bad-weather days on the pilots course bragging about the radio call we’d make if we were ever speeding towards the ground in a flameball. There was a famous tale of a fast-jet pilot who’d fatally crashed into a cliff, and just before impact he radioed his base with: “Better cancel the hot lunches.” It was legend with all baby-pilots.
“What kind of aircraft is Death anyway?” I ask Darwin.
“Beats me.” He’s distracted, waiting for details.
“Kandahar traffic, this is Death 23. We have suffered an engine failure after take-off. We are currently 500 yards east of the 27 threshold. We are on the ground, repeat: on the ground.”
“Roger,” ATC responds. “Can you confirm that you are still inside the wire?” If the aircraft is inside the safety of the barbed-wire fence around the Kandahar base, then it’s not as bad as it sounds, I think. If not, it’s the worst news imaginable.
“Death is outside the wire,” the voice drawls back.
“Why the hell is he so relaxed about it then?” Darwin says loudly. “Shall we?”
“I know,” I say, as the idea comes simultaneously to me. “I’ll offer to go into overwatch.”
We are armed and scary-looking; we can hover over the scene of the accident as a deterrent until some ground troops can recover the wreck and the crew. It works overhead Kajaki, so there’s no reason we can’t prevent an enemy attack here too.
“Kandahar, this is Ugly Five Four,” I transmit.
“Stand by,” ATC cuts in.
She’s not happy with my interruption. She radios Death and urgently asks for his coordinates; he tells her to wait. He’s clearly in no rush, whereas she is now starting to sound worried.
“Kandahar, Ugly Five Four can lift immediately and cover the accident. We are armed.” I transmit this in one long sentence so she can’t cut me out.
“Roger,” she responds, then swiftly relays our offer to Death.
There is a pause, and then, unbelievably, he declines.
“That won’t be necessary,” he calmly tells ATC.
For some minutes, we repeat this exchange with increasing levels of urgency. Death is outside the wire, unprotected. At least the crew seem to be fine. I keep telling ATC that we can be overhead in less than a minute; she keeps suggesting it to Death, Death keeps refusing. My mouth is dry and my heart is beating so hard it’s as if something is kicking me from inside. Sweat starts to form in beads on my back and shoulders but I feel strangely cold.
ATC is getting into the swing of things now and asks Death whether they have any injuries on board.
“Negative. No pilots or crew onboard,” Death replies.
“Ha! No wonder he crashed, with no pilot,” shouts Darwin.
I’m confused. What the…?
ATC is confused too.
“Confirm NO crew?” she repeats.
“Affirm, ma’am. Death is an unmanned aerial vehicle. I’m talking to you from my office.”
I can’t believe I wasted heartbeats on him. I look at Darwin in the mirror. He looks back, shaking his head. Nothing needs to be said, and I can hear him chuckling into his microphone.
Thanks to reader Mark Mallari for directing us to this book.
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