Ahead of this years’ Farnborough International Airshow, engineers and scientists at BAE Systems and the University of Glasgow have outlined their current thinking about military aircraft and how they might be designed and manufactured in the future.
The concepts have been developed collaboratively as part of BAE Systems’ ‘open innovation’ approach to sharing technology and scientific ideas which sees large and established companies working with academia and small technology start-ups.
During this century, the scientists and engineers envisage that small Unmanned Air Vehicles (UAVs) bespoke to specific military operations, could be ‘grown’ in large-scale labs through chemistry, speeding up evolutionary processes and creating bespoke aircraft in weeks, rather than years.
A radical new machine called a Chemputer™ could enable advanced chemical processes to grow aircraft and some of their complex electronic systems, conceivably from a molecular level upwards. This unique UK technology could use environmentally sustainable materials and support military operations where a multitude of small UAVs with a combination of technologies serving a specific purpose might be needed quickly. It could also be used to produce multi-functional parts for large manned aircraft.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) of the future will be able to visually coordinate their flight and navigation just like birds and flying insects do, without needing human input, radar or even GPS satellite navigation.
A research group at the University of Queensland, Australia is trying to make this future a reality by uncovering flying techniques that budgerigars and bees share, and applying their findings to UAV control programmes. Prof Mandyam Srinivasan, leading the research, explains: “We study how small airborne creatures such as bees and birds use their vision to avoid collisions with obstacles, fly safely through narrow passages, control their height above the ground and more. We then use biologically-inspired principles to design novel vision systems and algorithms for the guidance of UAVs.”
At first glance, insects and birds have very different brains in terms of size and architecture, yet the visual processing in both animals is very effective at guiding their flight. “Bees’ brains weigh a tenth of a milligram and carry far fewer neurones than our own brains; yet the insects are capable of navigating accurately to food sources over 10 km away from their hive,” remarks Prof Srinivasan. “Birds too can perform incredible aerobatics and navigational feats. These animals are clearly using simple and elegant strategies, honed by thousands of years of evolution.”
Scientists at Nanyang Technological University, Singapore (NTU Singapore) have developed a chip that allows new radar cameras to be made a hundred times smaller than current ones.
With this NTU technology, radar cameras that usually weigh between 50 kg and 200 kg and are commonly used in large satellites can be made to become as small as palm-sized.
Despite being small, they can produce images that are of the same high quality if not better compared to conventional radar cameras. They are also 20 times cheaper to produce and consume at least 75 per cent less power.
Developed over the past three years at NTU, the promising technology has already secured S$2.5 million in research funding from Singapore government agencies.
The radar chip has attracted the attention of several multinational corporations, and is now being researched for use in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) and satellite applications.
Assistant Professor Zheng Yuanjin from NTU’s School of Electrical and Electronic Engineering who led the research, said that the size and effectiveness of the chip will open up new applications not possible previously.
“We have significantly shrunk the conventional radar camera into a system that is extremely compact and affordable, yet provides better accuracy. This will enable high resolution imaging radar technology to be used in objects and applications never before possible, like small drones, driverless cars and small satellite systems,” said Asst Prof Zheng.
Advantages over current technology
Current radar camera systems are usually between half and two metres in length and weigh up to 200 kg. They cost more than US$1 million on the market and can consume over 1000 watts in electricity per hour, the energy equivalent of a household air-conditioning unit running for an hour.
Known as Synthetic Aperture Radar (SAR), these large radar cameras are often carried by large satellites and aircrafts that produce detailed images of the Earth’s surface. Objects longer than a metre, such as cars and boats, can be easily seen by the radar camera mounted on an aircraft flying at a height of 11 kilometres.
Unlike optical cameras which cannot work well at night due to insufficient light or in cloudy conditions, a radar camera uses microwaves (X-band or Ku-band) for its imaging, so it can operate well in all weather conditions and can even penetrate through foliage.
These detailed images from radar cameras can be used for environmental monitoring of disasters like forest fires, volcano eruptions and earthquakes as well as to monitor cities for traffic congestions and urban density.
But the huge size, prohibitive cost and energy consumption are deterrents for use in smaller unmanned aerial vehicles and autonomous vehicles. In comparison, NTU’s new radar chip (2mm x 3mm) when packaged into a module measures only 3cm x 4cm x 5cm, weighing less than 100 grams.
Production costs can go as low as US$10,000 per unit, while power consumption ranges from 1 to 200 watts depending on its application, similar to power-efficient LED TVs or a ceiling fan.
It can also capture objects as small as half a metre which is twice as detailed as the conventional radar camera used in large aircrafts or satellites.
Potential applications of the new radar chip
Asst Prof Zheng said that when mounted on UAVs, it can take high quality images on demand to monitor traffic conditions or even the coastlines for trespassers.
“Driverless cars will also be able to better scan the environment around them to avoid collisions and navigate more accurately in all weather conditions compared to current laser and optical technologies,” he added.
“Finally, with the space industry moving towards small satellite systems, such as the six satellites launched by NTU, smaller satellites can now also have the same advanced imaging capabilities previously seen only in the large satellites.”
Large satellites can weigh up to 1,000 kg, but microsatellites weigh only 100 to 200 kg.
Earth and environmental scientists have often had to rely on piloted aircraft and satellites to collect remote sensing data, platforms that have traditionally been controlled by large research organizations or regulatory agencies.
Thanks to the increased affordability and dramatic technological advances of drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), however, earth and environmental scientists can now conduct their own long-term high-resolution experiments at a fraction of the cost of using aircraft or satellites.
“UAVs are poised to revolutionize remote sensing in the earth and environmental sciences,” says Enrique Vivoni, hydrologist and professor at Arizona State University’s School of Earth and Space Exploration and Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering. “They let individual scientists obtain low-cost repeat imagery at high resolution and tailored to a research team’s specific interest area.”