Retrotechtacular: Using the Jet Stream for Aerial Warfare

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) are all the rage these days. But while today’s combative UAV technology is as modern as possible, the idea itself is not a new one. Austria floated bomb-laden balloons at Venice in the middle 1800s. About a hundred years later during WWII, the Japanese used their new-found knowledge of the jet stream to send balloons to the US and Canada.

Each balloon took about four days to reach the western coast of North America. They carried both incendiary and anti-personnel devices as a payload, and included a self-destruct. On the “business end” of the balloons was the battery, the demolition block, and a box containing four aneroid barometers to monitor altitude. In order to keep the balloons within the 8,000 ft. vertical range of the jet stream, they were designed to drop ballast sandbags beginning one day into flight using a system of blow plugs and fuses. In theory, the balloon has made it to North American air space on day four with nothing left hanging but the incendiaries and the central anti-personnel payload.

Although the program was short-lived, the Japanese launched some 9,300 of these fire balloons between November 1944 and April 1945. Several of them didn’t make it to land. Others were shot down or landed in remote areas. Several made the journey just fine, and two even floated all the way to Michigan. Not bad for a rice paper gas bag.

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Quadcopter Plane Transformer is Awesome

Is it a quadcopter? A plane?  No, it’s both! [Daniel Lubrich] is at it again with a vertical take off and landing transformer he calls the SkyProwler.

The SkyProwler uses a switch blade type mechanism to move from quadcopter mode to plane mode. The wings can be detached to make it a normal quad that has all the typical bells and whistles. It can follow you around with GPS, fly autonomously via way points, and has this cool gimbal mechanism that keeps the GoPro stable as the drone pitches in flight, allowing for a better video experience.

[Dan’s] ultimate goal is a full size passenger model called the SkyCruiser, which uses the same switchblade transformation mechanism as his much smaller SkyProwler. Be sure to check out the video below if you haven’t already, and let us know of any quadcopter / plane hybrids of your own.

Correction: We previously associated [Daniel Lubrich] with the ATMOS program. This was in error and has been removed from the article. The ATMOS UAV is a separate project which we previously covered.

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Flying Wing Project uses 3D Printing to Reach New Heights

A team of engineers from the Advanced Manufacturing Research Centre at the University of Sheffield have just put the finishing touches on their 3D printed Flying Wing with electric ducted fan engines — a mini electric jet so to speak.

Earlier this year they had created a completely 3D printed fixed wing UAV, which the new Flying Wing is based off of. Designed specifically for the FDM process, they were able to optimize the design so that all parts could be printed out in 24 hours flat using ABS plastic.

The new design also almost exclusively uses FDM technology — however the wings are molded carbon fibre… using a 3D printed mold of course!  The original glider weighed 2kg, and with the upgrades to the design, the Flying Wing weighs 3.5kg, with speed capabilities of around 45mph.

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Autonomous Plane Flying Across The USA


Somewhere between San Diego and South Carolina is an unmanned aerial vehicle attempting to make the first autonomous flight across the United States. The plane is electric and requires a landing and battery swap every hour or so, however the MyGeekShow guys are so far the only non-military entity to attempt such an ambitious flight.

The plane making the multiple flights is a Raptor 140 capable of cruising at 75 kph for about an hour before requiring a battery swap. Ground control is an RV, loaded up with LCDs and radios; as long as the RV is within a kilometer or so of the plane, the guys should be able to have a constant telemetry link.

Already the guys at MyGeekShow have pulled off a 52 km autonomous flight, following their flying wing in a car. Even though a hard landing required swapping out the carbon fiber spar for an aluminum one, the plane making the truly cross-country flight is still in good condition, ready to land on a South Carolina beach within a week.

You can follow the trip on the MyGeekShow Twitter. The guys are pulling off an incredible amount of updates and even a few live streams from the mobile command station.

UPDATE: It crashed. Tip stalls aren’t your friend, and undercambered wings exist. Good try, though.

The Autopilot Shield For The Raspberry Pi


In the world of drones, quadcopters, and unmanned aerial vehicles, the community has pretty much settled on AVR microcontrollers for the low end, and ARM for the high performance boards. If the FAA doesn’t screw things up, there will soon be another market that requires even more computational power, and Navio, the autopilot shield for the Pi, is just the thing for it.

Where high end multicopter and autopilot boards like the OpenPilot Revolution use ARM micros, there’s a small but demanding segment of the hobby that needs even more processing power. Think of something like the Outback Challenge, where fixed-wing drones search the desert for a lost mannequin autonomously. You’re going to need OpenCV for that, and that means Linux.

Navio is a shield for the Raspberry Pi, complete with a barometric pressure sensor, gyros, accelerometer, and compass, and GPS. It’s designed to run a more real-time version of Linux, and has the ability to do some interesting telemetry configurations – putting a 3G modem on the Navio isn’t much of a problem, and since it’s a Raspi, doing image processing of a downward facing camera is just a matter of writing the code.

The Navio team is currently running an Indiegogo campaign, with the baseline version available for $145. That’s pretty close to the price of the OpenPilot Revolution. There’s also a version upgraded with the U-blox NEO-6T that allows for on-board processing of raw GPS data.

NSA Technology Goes Open Hardware

When [Edward Snowden] smeared the internet with classified NSA documents, it brought to light the many spying capabilities our government has at its disposal. One the most interesting of these documents is known as the ANT catalog. This 50 page catalog, now available to the public, reads like a mail order form where agents can simply select the technology they want and order it. One of these technologies is called the Sparrow II, and a group of hackers at Hyperion Bristol has attempted to create their own version.

The Sparrow II is an aerial surveillance platform designed to map and catalog WiFi access points. Think wardriving from a UAV. Now, if you were an NSA agent, you could just order yourself one of these nifty devices from the ANT catalog for a measly 6 grand.  However, if you’re like most of us, you can use the guidance from Hyperion Bristol to make your own.

They start off with a Raspi, a run-of-the-mill USB WiFi adapter, a Ublox GY-NEO6MV2 GPS Module, and a 1200 mAh battery to power it all. Be sure to check out the link for full details.

Thanks to [Joe] for the tip!

Using UAVs to find mannequins lost in the outback

Every other year the Australian Research Center for Aerospace Automation, the government of Queensland, Australia  and other government and research institutions hold a contest to develop technology for unmanned aerial vehicles for the wastes of central Australia. Canberra UAV – a group of autonomous drone enthusiasts from the Make, Hack, Void hackerspace – took part in this UAV challenge this year. They ended up with one of the most successful UAVs to every compete, and while they didn’t quite finish the competition they were one of the most successful entries to date.

The goal of the Search and Rescue Outback Challenge is to take off from a landing strip, search for a mannequin named Outback Joe, and deliver 500 ml of life-giving water via air drop. Out of 72 teams entered in to this year’s Outback Challenge, only 6 were allowed to take off – safety restrictions, don’t you know – and all but two hadn’t been destroyed via ‘rapid, unplanned descent’ during qualifications.

UAV Canberra was the only team able to search the entire 5 nautical mile radius search area with their cameras and find Outback Joe. Contest judges gave them permission to drop their payload, but unfortunately the bottle of water was snagged on the engine.

In the many iterations of the Search and Rescue Outback Challenge, UAV Canberra is only the second team to locate a mannequin in the outback, and the first to do it autonomously. A shame, then, that they were unable to claim a victory, but we’ll look forward to their entry in the next Search and Rescue competition.

You can check out a few videos of the Canberra UAV team’s flights after the break.

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