Drones over Ventura County!

By George Miller

Ventura County, CA is ground zero for “drones,” a common vernacular term for what are actually “UAV’s” (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) or “UAS’s” (Unmanned Aerial Systems).  An astonishing 86% of all U.S.-made UAV’s are manufactured by AeroVironment, headquartered in Monrovia, with the main UAV manufacturing plant in Simi Valley (they don’t make the big, most expensive ones like “Global Hawks” and “Predators”). It is one of the fastest growing companies in a growing industry — and certainly one of the county’s most important sources of the high quality private sector jobs.

UAV1

UAV is launched by hand

An Event

We witnessed a recent demonstration of some of their UAV products. Showcased were its main small UAV airplanes, a quadrotor helicopter model and associated control systems.

While we were there, several demonstrations took place, which included a brief overview of the complete system, including control/monitoring sub-systems and the actual vehicles, with gimballing camera installations. They demonstrated the launching and flying procedures and showed us the monitoring/control systems.  We could see not only the vehicles’ vital signs and telemetry, but the camera views, including a bird’s eye view of ourselves.

DroneGuyblurred

Pilot holds portable field-deployed control console, while an operator (not visible here, but launching in above photo) prepares for launch and verifies preflight check. Monitoring systems visible on right.

We met executives, technical people and pilots, who were available to answer questions.  Some pilots have military or commercial flying experience. Some don’t. One was a motorcycle company finance director and model plane hobbyist recruited by the company in 2009. Because this was an internal event and there were some new proprietary technologies We withheld or masked just a few photos, but what you see here will give you a very good idea of some of the product lines.  Nothing secret here.

UAV140507 006

Monitoring systems (glare intentionally introduced to occlude proprietary info)

The UAV’s are propelled by light, powerful electric motors, with lithium ion batteries. Aircraft can stay aloft from 40 minutes to about 2+ hours and are very quiet once launched and reach cruising speed and altitude. Vehicle construction is mostly very lightweight composites. They look something like model airplanes, but are quite a bit more sophisticated. The payloads we saw were cameras, which can work in light and infrared (IR) frequencies, and illuminators are available. For increased payload capacity, an optional under wing Transit Bay is available for easy integration of 3rd party payloads such as communications relay, geo locations, or laser marker to meet the diverse needs of military or civilian applications. Available are on-board GPS systems for tracking, navigation and autonomous control.

AVQuadRotorHeli

Quad rotor helicopter UAV

AVlogoThe Company

AeroVironment generated nearly a quarter of a billion dollars of annual revenue, for fiscal year ’13, the last period for which reports are available. It was impacted quite a bit by the “sequestration” cuts, but expects to do well in the future.  The company employs over 750 people and has grown from $29.4 million in revenue in fiscal 2001 to $240 million in fiscal 2013.  The substantial and growing non-defense business should help stabilize and enhance future prospects. the firm is about 4o years old and started providing UAV’s in 1987.

Naval Base Ventura County failed to win the competition as a UAV test base last year, but AeroVironment’s massive presence here makes up for much of that.  Their products are also very suitable for the booming non-Dept. of Defense and private UAV market.

The firm’s two largest product lines are UAS’s and vehicle charging systems. As an example, here’s a product sheet for the UAS: RQ-20A Puma AE.  Read about their charging systems. You can find more on their web site.

AeroVironment is also a leader in electric vehicle charging technology. Nissan is one of their biggest customers. They are also involved in building and operating a “green highway” line of fast charging stations along I-5 in Washington and Oregon, under a Dept. of Transportation contract. It is a large scale production demonstration project to enable EV’s (Electric vehicles) to travel long distances and comes complete with electronic payment and tracking systems.  The company also does projects for DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) and other entities.

AVcharging systems

Vehicle charging systems are the company’s other major line of business- cars, fork lift trucks and airport “tugs ‘ (AV is the largest producer of the latter two).

The Industry

UAV has become a very strong industrial sector, particularly for small multi-use aircraft. Projections are that UAV’s could account for about $88 billion in annual economic activity within ten years. Previous news reports have predicted 20,000+ drones in the skies over the USA.

Applications are in military, agriculture, law enforcement, surveying, wildfire monitoring, regulatory compliance monitoring, border monitoring and far more. As an example, agricultural applications could include things such as crop monitoring/yields, hydrology studies, pest infestation, cattle monitoring and more. One would suppose that larger vehicles could be set up to deliver pesticides or even do firefighting. We were told that Japan has used unmanned helicopters for spraying for 20 years.

Long range U.S. military UAV “roadmap” summary – in case you want to get into the nitty-gritty.

General unmanned systems information.

UAV Development

Like many breakthrough technical installations, these were developed first in a laboratory environment, but driven and deployed by military exigencies and the enormous clout of the U.S. Dept of Defense (DoD). Most people have read about the increasing use of UAV’s in foreign wars and the controversy over their use and sometime misuse. Like any powerful technology, it can be used wisely or unwisely. It was inevitable that domestic uses would occur and now there is much debate about how, when and even if of deployment here. The biggest demand seems to be for surveillance and  surveys in military, law enforcement, agriculture and civil government. Of course, nearly everyone knows that larger military attack UAV’s are used in some foreign conflicts now.

Regulation

Current FAA regulations restrict non-military UAV’s to a 400 foot ceiling, plus certain exclusion zones, to help avoid interference with other aircraft and security areas. Operators need to pass a Class 2 FAA medical test and have another certificate. Companies like AeroVironment are said to have more stringent requirements and training for their own employees and contractors, including sign-offs by “platform” (model).   We understand that operators are required to maintain line of sight visibility with the aircraft at all times and that autonomous aircraft operation is not permitted at this time, except for selected government agencies with “COA’s” (Certificates Of Authorization).  There are exceptions. We ‘re not sure what system design or performance regulations exist.  Domestic operations are so new that regulation is lagging behind the very rapid pace of development and deployment.

Here’s an early project that established AeroVironment as a major innovator:  Making history: Flight of the Gossamer Albatross- first human-powered flight across the English Channel- 1979

galbatrossLanding

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George Miller is Publisher of Citizensjournal.us and a “retired” operations management consultant, active in civic affairs, living in Oxnard.

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