Wednesday, December 2, 2015

0002 What Exactly Is A UAV?

- Back it up
- What exactly is a UAV?
- Next time...

Back It Up

Last week we went over a little of my background to explain my motivations, and we set down a 'mission statement' defining the purpose of this UAV program. In the Next Time... section I said we would look into the current UAV market as we start to define the requirements for our clean sheet bird. However, I'm going to divert from that plan for this week's post. Instead, we'll back up slightly to talk about something much more fundamental...

What exactly is a UAV?

Given that you're reading this blog, you probably already have some knowledge of UAVs. But since this term is so central to the work we're doing here it's important that we start out on the same page. So for the sake of consistency, let's begin at square one: 'UAV' is an acronym that stands for
The field is rapidly expanding, as we'll discuss next week, so the terminology hasn't yet settled. Manufacturers are trying to differentiate their products, and operators are trying to distinguish their applications, so you might also hear a variety of terms like Unmanned Aircraft (UA), Unmanned Aerial System (UAS), Unmanned Combat Aerial Vehicle (UCAV), Rotorcraft UAV (RUAV), Micro-UAV (MUAV), Remotely Piloted Aircraft (RPA), Optionally Piloted Vehicle (OPV), drone, quadrotor, etc.

While the details might differ, all of these terms are getting at the same thing: a machine that flies without humans on board. Eliminating those constraints opens up a dizzying array of possibilities. At the large end of the spectrum, the definition tends to be fairly intuitive. Many resemble conventional aircraft, minus the space and life-support features normally devoted to a flight crew.

Top: The now iconic MQ-9 Reaper. Bottom: The MQ-8 Fire Scout.
Some large UAVs have taken on novel form factors, particularly in the High Altitude Long Endurance (HALE) category. For instance, as far back as 1995, NASA developed and flew the solar-powered Pathfinder UAV, which ultimately reached an altitude of over 80,000 feet. Without the need for pilots, similar aircraft will eventually achieve indefinite endurance, landing only for periodic maintenance.
NASA Pathfinder solar powered UAV
Whether or not they resemble 'typical' manned aircraft, these large UAVs are all highly engineered, sophisticated machines. At the smaller end of the spectrum, the definition gets a bit murkier. Is there a difference between a (micro) UAV and a model airplane? A toy?

I would contend there's a useful distinction to be made based on the complexity and utility of the aircraft. At the extremes, a simple, useless aircraft would not be a UAV and a sophisticated, useful aircraft would.

Toys exist at the low end of both spectra, since little engineering goes into their design. Toy manufacturers figure out how to inexpensively mass produce something that will fly, and take it to market. While it can be great fun to fly these around your living room, their performance is universally lacking, and it does no useful 'work'.
A quadrotor toy.
RC (radio controlled) aircraft start to blur the boundary with UAVs as they have moderate complexity and low utility. Significantly more thought goes into their design than that of toys, and the result is a vastly superior aircraft. As you can see in the video below, RC helicopters are capable of maneuvers unthinkable in a manned aircraft, and unattainable by a toy. However, since these aircraft lack utility and subsystems that aren't strictly required for flight, they still fall short of the UAV mark.
RC helicopter performing incredible aerobatics.

To qualify as a UAV in my book, the aircraft must have been engineered to perform at least one task, and preferably have been designed with versatility in mind. To achieve that utility invariably requires a considerable amount of sophistication in both the design process and the final product. The result might be visually indistinguishable from an RC aircraft, as is the case for the RQ-11 Raven. However, this small aircraft is capable of 60-90 minutes endurance while carrying sensor payloads such as a stabilized gimbaled EO IR (Electro-Optical InfraRed) camera. This capability has helped it earn its place as the most widely used UAV in the world.

A soldier hand-launching the RQ-11 Raven.
I would add one more quality as a 'nice to have': autonomy. A UAV can be thought of as a flying robot (as terrifying as that might sound to some) that can sense and interact with its environment, within the confines of its programming. This can be as simple as an autopilot, that keeps the aircraft flying straight and level without additional inputs, or it could include such high level tasks as total mission independence. While part (1) of the Mission Statement sets the bar at engineering and building a UAV, I am already hoping and planning to achieve this higher level sophistication. This isn't an end unto itself, but I suspect it will arise from creating an aircraft with capabilities that push the envelope.

Next time...

...we'll rejoin the detour and discuss the current state of the UAV market, both in terms of common and anticipated uses, as well as available aircraft.

Until then...over and out.

Feel free to comment! I'd say all feedback is appreciated, but this is the internet, so keep it civil...

Monday, November 23, 2015

0001: Mission Statement

- Who am I?
- What am I doing? And why?
- Why might you care?
- Next time...

I realize the outline of this post might sound like an existential crisis, but I assure you I'm quite well. What I'm really trying to do here is lay out in the most fundamental terms the purpose of my UAV program and this accompanying blog. No specifics, just a 'mission statement' to keep us grounded. If I should start to wander off, please point me back here before I lose myself.

Who am I?

Pedigree and anecdotes can be a lousy surrogate metric for capability, but they're often better than nothing. As this blog progresses, I hope it will prove valuable enough to earn your readership. In the mean time, though, here's a bit of my backstory. If you have no need for that, skip on ahead to the next section.

My name is Matt and I' engineer.

In reality, I've always been an engineer, even before I learned of the field, let alone earned the title. It's just in my nature. Some kids take apart radios and become electrical engineer. Some kids disassemble the lawn mower and become mechanical engineers. I looked towards the sky and grew up to be an aerospace engineer.

As far back as I can remember, I've been entranced by the power, beauty, and complexity of aircraft. In 5th grade, when AOL first made its way into our home, I spent my afternoons researching military jets. Seriously.
The binder of specs I compiled circa 1995

I wrote to aerospace companies like Lockheed, GE, and McDonnell Douglas, and they kindly responded with marketing propaganda. My dad dutifully hauled me to air shows where we sat in the shade of bombers and watched slack-jawed as the Blue Angels tore open the sky. And above all, I played with my die-cast planes, dog fighting in my bedroom, wishing I were in the cockpit. If there had been an Aerospace Geeks of America club, I would have been a card-carrying member.
The formidable squadron of my youth
The childhood fascination only grew. When it came time to apply to college, I realized there was a name for my passion. I threw myself headlong into a bachelors of science. Freshmen enter as a ball of clay, and through unbelievable amounts of study, countless projects, and possibly lab research, they are molded into the vague semblance of an engineer. This sort of process continues for a lifetime, and hopefully you end up an expert in your field.

Those four years went by in a wonderful blur, and I graduated just in time for the dawn of the Great Recession. I could sense the job market closing in as the stock market spiraled into turmoil. Yet somehow I landed a job with a major aerospace company, slipping under the wire just before a de facto hiring freeze. Seven years later, I'm still in the same position, working on large military helicopters as a 'loads & dynamics' engineer. These beasts love to shake, and it's my job to ensure they can withstand the vibrations. My work group has expertise with a particular set of skills, and I'm lucky enough to apply them to a broad array of tasks. Finite element modeling, flight- and wind tunnel testing, all sorts of data analysis, and R&D that questions the very definition of a helicopter. After all these years, I'm still amazed every time I get to walk out on a flight ramp to work on these aircraft. Childhood dream come true, and I'm one lucky SOB.
Just another day at the helicopter factory
 A few years ago I started taking advantage of my employer's generous education benefits and began pursuing a Masters of Robotics Engineering. Working full time, I stay more than busy taking one course a semester. It's a long slog - I'm in year 4 of 5 - but I would be a fool to pass up free education.
I plan to be on the winning side of the coming robot revolution
The downside to this arrangement is that I don't have time to do research, so my robotics experience is heavy on theory and light on application these days. It's incredible to me that such concrete material can be taught in such an abstract way, but that's a rant for another day.

If you're still with me, that brings us quite neatly to our present situation.

What am I doing? And why?

As I mentioned in the zeroth post, I have embarked on an 'new start' program to design and build a UAV.

Back in the day, aerospace engineers could expect to work on a half dozen completely new aircraft over the course of a career. From concept to production, they could see and influence the whole process, gaining a holistic understanding of these complex machines. For many reasons, though, the cost and time-frame for the development of a new aircraft have ballooned, and you'd be lucky to work on a single clean sheet bird. Fortunately, there's now a shining exception: unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs, aka drones) are ushering in a second golden age of aeronautics. Since these aircraft don't need to accommodate people, they can take on all sorts of unconventional sizes and form factors. Engineers are now developing more capable aircraft, faster and cheaper than ever before, from micro-scale aerobatic quadrotors, to long-range surveillance and strike platforms. It's not unheard of to go from preliminary design to first flight in under a year, and I find that incredibly exciting. As you might have guessed, I'm hoping to combine my aerospace and robotics backgrounds to shift my career towards UAVs. Ultimately I want to lead small, motivated teams in the rapid development of new concepts. First, though, I need some real world experience. Hence this UAV program.

The world of UAVs is rapidly growing in all directions. Military programs are breaking new ground, building ever more capable aircraft at an accelerating rate. Much of academia seems to be using commercial off the shelf (COTS) UAVs as platforms to advance the field of controls engineering. However, home hobbyists and toy manufacturers seem to have hit a plateau. A number of years ago electric quadrotors exploded onto the scene, and they now dominate the market. Don't get me wrong; I'm really excited by their popularity. UAVs are undoubtedly the future of aviation, and winning public acceptance and support will be critical in the transformation. However, it's disappointing that progress has stalled at such an immature stage. These quadrotors can have incredible maneuverability, but at the cost of negligible payload capability and very short endurance. Batteries are typically swapped out after 10-20 minutes of operation.

But where there's a deficiency, there's an opportunity. Above all else, here's what I'm aiming to accomplish with this program and blog:
  1. Push the Envelope: Engineer and build a UAV with capabilities not currently available on the market
  2. Pay it Forward: Use this project as an in-depth case study to teach engineering
All the details, all the analyses, all the actions should ultimately tie back to one or more of these goals. As we get deeper into sub-sub-sub-projects, it will be important to maintain this perspective.

As I alluded to in the zeroth post, this program will be a project of projects. It will incorporate many, many types of knowledge and skills, from mechanical design to electronics, computer science to fabrications techniques. I have some notion of what I'm getting myself into, but in reality it's mostly unknown unknowns, and that is exactly why I'm doing it.

Why might you care?

The answer will likely differ from person to person. I can divide all people into two groups: people I know, and people I don't know. This relationship might be a driver in your motivation.

If we know each other, you might enjoy just popping in to see what I'm up to and not care too much about the particular content. In this case, I have an obligation to make it an enjoyable, concise read.

If we don't know each other, the bar is set considerably higher. Yes, you could just be curious what I'm up to these days, but more likely you're looking for ideas and explanations. For information to be useful, it needs to be both pertinent and comprehensible. Self-selection will largely take care of the former because we have a well-defined topic, but the latter is up to me.

From my brief biography above, you can see I've been extremely fortunate to have access to great educational opportunities and to challenging work. Unfortunately, much of engineering is taught in an abstract sense, with lots of math eventually yielding a conclusion with supposedly obvious utility. People who understand the material in this way go on to be professors who unwittingly perpetuate the problem. There's no malice in it, just people responding to the incentive structure of the higher education system. This makes the material inaccessible to many people who can't or don't devote years to study, and that's a damn shame. Engineering is the science and the art of solving real-world problems, and everyone should have access to clear, intuitive explanations.

I'm not a 'math guy'. For me, it's a tool at my disposal, not an end unto itself. So over the course of my educational and professional career, I have had to spend a tremendous amount of time translating textbooks and professor-speak into terms I can understand and use. I will be relying on that foundation throughout this program, and I can leverage it to pay it forward.

Next time...

...we'll explore the current state of the UAV market to better understand gaps and opportunities. Ultimately, this will help define the objectives and requirements for our UAV program.

Until then...over and out.

Feel free to comment! I'd say all feedback is appreciated, but this is the internet...

Monday, November 16, 2015

0000: Hello, World!

If you've never done any computer science, the title of this zeroth post might seem vapidly chipper. If you have, though, you probably remember the joy and satisfaction of seeing those words appear on the screen after running your first program. Probably something like:

     printf("Hello World");


True, it’s a trivially simple task for our powerful, modern computers, akin to driving a Ferrari on your daily commute. To the budding programmer, though, it represents so much more. Commanding the computer to perform that function opens a door just a crack, and gives you a peek into a world of possibilities. It helps you truly understand that people – individuals and groups – engineered the world we live in. The apps in your smart phone didn’t just happen. Each started as an idea, and through knowledge, hard work, and a dash of luck, was transformed into reality. Your bicycle didn’t magically pop out of a factory. Some ambitious people saw an opportunity, developed a new design, overcame manufacturing challenges, and brought it to market. ‘Hello, World!’ can help you see your own potential to accomplish things that shape your own world, and that is a thrilling, empowering experience.

I’m going to be perfectly honest with you, this isn’t my first time. I have attempted – and failed – to write a blog on two separate occasions. In the first entry of the first go, I intended to justify my efforts and the existence of yet another droplet in the sea of content. Unable to convince even myself that it was anything more than mental masturbation, I called it a day without clicking ‘publish’. Round two was a bit more earnest, managing to complete three posts and a draft before stalling out. They’re still out there somewhere, floating in the ether, drifting on The Cloud, taking up a tiny slice of server space... 

Both of my prior attempts fell victim to the same culprit: lack of purpose. I was writing just to write, and nothing so self-serving can be sustained. Why should I spend my time writing, and why should you spend your time and mental energy reading content that doesn't have a solid reason for existing? What value is yet another voice in the cacophony if it doesn't reflect a cohesive view on worthwhile, interesting subject material?

Having just roundly rejected this platform, you would be right to wonder, "what could have changed to bring him back into the fold?" This time I have a real purpose, one that will motivate me and hopefully prove useful and entertaining to you, dear reader. 

I'm going to design and build an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV, a.k.a. 'drone').

This will be a 'new start program,' as we say in the aerospace biz. A project of projects (of projects of projects...), it will undoubtedly broaden my horizons as I attempt to push the envelope. I know I have a tremendous amount to learn, and the unknown unknowns likely outnumber anything I could conceive of at this point. But with hard work and that dash of good luck, I will come out on the other side with a capable new aircraft. My intention is to document the whole thing in this blog. The successes and failures, the advances and setbacks. And above all: the thought process. Engineering is as much about how you get there as where you end up. I hope to pay forward the benefit of the education I've received by helping teach what I can to those who want to learn. 

Next time I'll provide a high-level overview of what I'm hoping to accomplish with this program. Until then...over and out.

__________________________________________________________________________________  Feel free to comment! I'd say all feedback is appreciated, but this is the internet...