Unmanned Flying Fish seaplane makes a splash

The Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) and University of Michigan have developed and successfully tested an unmanned seaplane called the Flying Fish that can handle a variety of water-born surveillance duties.

The Flying Fish is a little bigger than a large pelican and is designed to be an autonomous buoy for persistent surveillance in the open ocean, though it could perform other shadowing applications in the future.   

The Flying Fish is an electric seaplane and works by drifting over a specified area until its onboard Global Positioning System tells the craft it has floated too far. That triggers the takeoff sequence, which gets the plane airborne in just 10 meters. The plane puts the motors on at full throttle and sets the pitch elevator enough to break out of the water. Then it counts and pitches forward. Other GPS coordinates trigger the landing sequence. The flight pattern is, for the most part, a recording of a graduate student's piloting of the plane. That means the takeoff is blind, and the plane takes no measurements of its surroundings. The waves would confuse it, researchers said.  The landing is basically a shallow descent. When it hits the water, it goes, 'Oh, there's the water.’ The boat has very well-designed pontoons. Because it doesn't have a flat bottom, it cuts into the water like a diver, as opposed to belly-flopping, the researchers said.

 For a small vehicle like this, most waves look like those in the "the perfect storm." By flying over them researchers minimize energy used in transit, maintain a long-term energy balance (i.e. no refueling required), and give more time for sensor operations without noise from the vehicle. Researchers envision fleets of these vehicles deployed for a variety of environmental monitoring applications, researchers stated on their Web site.

Next, the team plans to outfit the plane with solar power and add more sensors.

University of Michigan engineering researchers recently returned from sea trials off the coast of Monterey, Calif., where they demonstrated the craft's capability to DARPA officials.  "The vehicle did very well," said Hans Van Sumeren, associate director of the U-M Marine Hydrodynamics Laboratories. "To take off and land in the water was a big effort. We did it 22 times."

The University of Michigan project isn’t he only unmanned seaplane development going on. Oregon Iron Works is part of a team working to develop an unmanned seaplane for the U.S. Navy.  The company has successfully tested its Sea Scout aircraft.  The Navy hopes to use the aircraft for surveillance and reconnaissance.

By developing automated water-landing capabilities for an unmanned craft, the Navy can minimize the need for complicated launch and retrieval gear such as catapults and recovery.Unmanned aerial vehicles are all the rage. 

Recently military experts said the need will soon arise to improve air traffic control for the unmanned aircraft. That’s because of the phenomenal growth of the UAV. For example, researchers at the Teal Group said in their 2008 market study estimates that UAV spending will more than double over the next decade from current worldwide UAV spending of $3.4 billion annually to $7.3 billion, totaling close to $55 billion in the next ten years.

In addition, automated unmanned helicopters and other flying aircraft, whose current roles are mostly in the military, will be used to track everything from traffic congestion to forest fires.  

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Copyright © 2007 IDG Communications, Inc.

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