The Navy's unmanned X-47B flies again

The experimental, unmanned X-47B continues to get its sea legs.

The US Navy over the weekend resumed at-sea testing of the X-47B, also known as the Unmanned Combat Air System Demonstrator (UCAS-D), which has put a gleam in the Pentagon's eye about someday equipping carrier strike forces with autonomous aircraft. Before that day comes, the Navy needs to be very, very sure that robo-planes can work smoothly and safely amid all the other activity on and around an aircraft carrier's flight deck.

In an unspecified number of 45-minute flights, the Northrop Grumman-built X-47B performed catapult launches and arrested … Read more

MQ-8C Fire Scout robo-copter makes first flight

The US Navy wants its Fire Scout drones to grow up in a hurry.

Late last week, the Navy and Northrop Grumman sent word that the latest version of the unmanned rotorcraft, the MQ-8C Fire Scout, made its first flights on October 31. They weren't long affairs -- the first lasted 7 minutes, the second one, 9 minutes -- but the key is that the latest Fire Scout airframe got off the ground.

The first flight served to validate the autonomous control systems of the fledgling robo-copter, which was operated by a ground-based flight test team. The second saw … Read more

Australian textbook delivery, care of drones

If you just ordered a book from textbook rental start-up Zookal, look skyward.

Zookal has partnered with aerial-technology startup Flirtey (a joint venture between Zookal and Vimbra) to start delivering its packages to customers via unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) as of next year. The technology they're using, the companies say, was previously only available to the military and to universities.

As of March 2014, customers within 3 kilometers (1.8 miles) of Sydney's central business district will be able to arrange free delivery by air from one of six hexacopters. They will have to order delivery to an outdoor area, and the drone will find the customer based on GPS coordinates sent from an Android app (an iOS app will be built after the program is launched). The UAV will hover over the location and lower the textbooks on a retractable cable, allowing the customer to detach the parcel and the drone to be on its way. The entire process could take as little as two or three minutes. … Read more

Solar-powered Solara UAV could stay aloft for years

So-called high-altitude, long-endurance (HALE) UAVs like the Global Hawk have been around for a while, but a New Mexico startup wants to launch gigantic drones that won't have to land for years.

Titan Aerospace recently showed off its designs for the Solara 50 and 60, solar-powered unmanned flyers that it calls "atmospheric satellites."

They're designed to be a fraction of the cost of a satellite while delivering a range of functionality from forest fire and atmospheric monitoring to live mapping and narcotics tracking. … Read more

Could storm-chasing UAVs help predict tornadoes?

In the wake of the colossal tornado that rampaged through 17 miles of central Oklahoma, plans for storm-chasing UAVs are taking on new significance.

Students at Oklahoma State University have been working on "storm-penetrating air vehicles" that could help cope with deadly tornadoes.

The aircraft are "designed to penetrate thunderstorms, including the supercells that spawn tornadoes" to gather data used to predict storms and warn people about them, the university said in a release. … Read more

Your very own drone, to follow you home

Imagine carving your way down a particularly challenging slope, your skis kicking up clouds of snow, trees flying by, your death-defying stunts captured perfectly on camera. And you're all by yourself.

How would you pull off such a feat?

Short of those with a film crew on hand, or at least a buddy with a GoPro camera tracking your every move, it's hard to imagine it being possible at all, let alone while you're alone.

But you may not have to imagine it for long.

Next week, a startup called Universal Air will finish shipping out its … Read more

Airware's OS for commercial drones takes flight

MOUNTAIN VIEW, Calif. -- While hobbyist use of drones is all the rage these days, there are few ways for commercial or enterprise customers to get unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) in the air.

But that's what Airware, one of the startups in the winter 2013 Y Combinator class, showed off at Demo Day today.

The Newport Beach, Calif., company aims to give commercial companies an easy-to-use development platform that will get their purpose-built drones up and flying in no time. Airware's platform comprises both on-board hardware and software, founder Jonathan Downey said. It also features elements that all … Read more

LED quadrotors form 'Star Trek' logo over London

I can't say I'm a fan of the "Star Trek" reboot, preferring the days when the franchise was so bad it was good, but I have to admire this marketing stunt for "Into Darkness."

We've seen LED quadrotor displays before, and there's no denying that lighting up the night sky with small flying machines has enormous potential.

Ars Electronica Futurelab, the same outfit that illuminated the skies over Linz, Austria, last year, launched 30 quadrotors near London's Tower Bridge and flew in a formation that any Trekkie would salute.… Read more

Anti-drone revolt prompts push for new federal, state laws

An unusual bipartisan revolt has erupted against law enforcement plans to fly more drones equipped with high-tech gear that can be used to conduct surveillance of Americans.

A combination of concerns about privacy, air traffic safety, facial recognition, cell phone tracking -- and even the possibility that in the future drones could be armed -- have suddenly placed police on the defensive.

A public outcry in Seattle last month prompted the mayor to ground the police department's nascent drone program. Oregon held a hearing this week on curbing drones, following one in Idaho last week. And on Tuesday, Rep. … Read more

House orders Pentagon to disclose domestic drone use

The U.S. House of Representatives voted yesterday to require the Defense Department to disclose whether military drones are being operated domestically to conduct surveillance on American citizens.

A requirement buried in a lengthy appropriations bill calls on newly confirmed Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel to disclose to Congress what "policies and procedures" are in place "governing the use" of military drones or other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) domestically. The report is due no later than 90 days after the bill is signed into law.

The vote on the bill, which was overwhelmingly supported by Republicans and … Read more