U.S. Navy Starts Delivering Drones Using Balloons and Submarines

Need to sneak your UAV in under or over the radar? Try using subs or balloons like the Navy does

2 min read
U.S. Navy Starts Delivering Drones Using Balloons and Submarines

A few years ago when we visited AUVSI, the big conference organized by the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International, we took a look at some of the vaguely nutty ways that UAVs are landed. Launching is generally more straightforward, unless you need to be stealthy about it, which is why the U.S. Navy is looking to submerged submarines and high-altitude balloons to deliver drones.

Drones launched from subs is a fairly obvious good idea for over-the-horizon reconnaissance, but making it happen is tricky. Drones tend to be small, relatively fragile little things that don't react well to being dumped out of a submarine into the ocean, so Raytheon had to get clever. They've developed a canister that can be flushed out of a sub's trash disposal unit of all places, and inside is a UAV, all snug and warm and dry. The canister gradually floats to the surface, orients itself, and the UAV gets ejected up and out and goes on its merry way. The UAV inside the canister is AeroVironment's Switchblade, which, with its small size and nifty folding wings, is perfect for the job.

So that's one way of stealthily deploying a drone, but an even wilder way is by using a high-altitude weather balloon with a drone stapled to it, with drones stapled to it. Nope, that's not a typo: The Naval Research Laboratory has been using weather balloons to carry a medium-sized Tempest UAV up to 60,000 feet, and the Tempest UAV itself is carrying a pair of tiny little CICADA (Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft ) drones underneath its wings. Look:

The Tempest can travel up to 30 miles and deploy the CICADAs as gliders, which can then land within 15 feet of their target coordinates. Each CICADA can carry a variety of sensor payloads, and as the name implies, they're designed to be cheap and disposable: The airframe is actually just a custom printed circuit board.

This balloon launch multi-drone thing in particular is very cool, since whatever you attach to the balloon can use its engine purely for range as opposed to altitude. And dropping off these little microdrones to get in and do the dirty work saves a bunch of money and adds that much more versatility to the entire system.

[ NRL ] via [ Aviation Week ]

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How the U.S. Army Is Turning Robots Into Team Players

Engineers battle the limits of deep learning for battlefield bots

11 min read
Robot with threads near a fallen branch

RoMan, the Army Research Laboratory's robotic manipulator, considers the best way to grasp and move a tree branch at the Adelphi Laboratory Center, in Maryland.

Evan Ackerman

“I should probably not be standing this close," I think to myself, as the robot slowly approaches a large tree branch on the floor in front of me. It's not the size of the branch that makes me nervous—it's that the robot is operating autonomously, and that while I know what it's supposed to do, I'm not entirely sure what it will do. If everything works the way the roboticists at the U.S. Army Research Laboratory (ARL) in Adelphi, Md., expect, the robot will identify the branch, grasp it, and drag it out of the way. These folks know what they're doing, but I've spent enough time around robots that I take a small step backwards anyway.

This article is part of our special report on AI, “The Great AI Reckoning.”

The robot, named RoMan, for Robotic Manipulator, is about the size of a large lawn mower, with a tracked base that helps it handle most kinds of terrain. At the front, it has a squat torso equipped with cameras and depth sensors, as well as a pair of arms that were harvested from a prototype disaster-response robot originally developed at NASA's Jet Propulsion Laboratory for a DARPA robotics competition. RoMan's job today is roadway clearing, a multistep task that ARL wants the robot to complete as autonomously as possible. Instead of instructing the robot to grasp specific objects in specific ways and move them to specific places, the operators tell RoMan to "go clear a path." It's then up to the robot to make all the decisions necessary to achieve that objective.

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