Saturday, July 13, 2013

Week in review (7/7 to 7/13)

If you're interested in unmanned systems and robotics, this was the week for you. On Wednesday, history was made when an unmanned jet the size of a fighter landed on the deck of a carrier. The next day DARPA unveiled a robot designed to come to the aid of humans during natural and man-made disasters. But almost as a reminder that much work still needs to be done, another robot aircraft, this one a target drone, crashed in the Gulf of Mexico after it went haywire.

Welcome to the age of the Robo sapiens.

The story that grabbed a lot of headlines was the landing of a Northrop Grumman-built X-47B fighter on the deck of a carrier off the coast of Virginia. True, it's not the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle has landed on a moving ship. Northrop Grumman's unmanned Fire Scout helicopters have done so for quite some time now, and smaller unmanned aircraft have been caught in huge nets aboard ships.

But this was a plane that landed on the ship autonomously, using GPS navigation, a high-integrity network connection and advanced flight control software to guide itself through the turbulent air behind the aircraft carrier and onto the moving flight deck, just like generations of naval aviators have done.

The take away – and no doubt it was not lost on the new generation of pilots being trained by the Navy – is that the robot was able to perform what it takes a long time for a human to master. The X-47B was even able to determine on its own to abort a third attempted landing and return to Naval Air Statiaon Patuxent River, Md.

"It isn't very often you get a glimpse of the future. Today, those of us aboard USS George H.W. Bush got that chance,” said Secretary of the Navy Ray Mabus about the landing by "Salty Dog 502." What's really remarkable is it was just this past May that the X-47B successfully performed a catapult launch from the same ship, CVN 77. (Post)

For the Gulf Coast, the landing was significant for several reasons, not the least of which is that Northrop Grumman builds portions of two unmanned aircraft, Fire Scout and Global Hawk, in Moss Point, Miss. In addition, one of the X-47Bs will eventually be put on display at Pensacola's National Naval Aviation Museum, according to the Pensacola News Journal.

This is also the region where naval aviators begin initial training and where pilots learn to fly the fifth-generation F-35, F-22 fighters. It's also where the military regularly flies unmanned systems, ranging in size from hand-held systems to plane-sized target drones. And the Gulf Coast is also the home of Florida's Institute for Human and Machine Cognition, a recognized leaders in robotics.

A team from Pensacola's IHMC will be going up against other top robotics teams in the Defense Advanced Research Project Agency Robotics Challenge in December at the Homestead-Miami Speedway in Homestead, Fla., with a final challenge a year later for the $2 million prize.

IHMC may be considered a team to beat by virtue of the initial stage of the competition. The IHMC team won first place in the virtual challenge, where the competitors' software programs were used in computer simulations (Post). IHMC beat 25 other competitors, scoring 52 of a possible 60 points – way better than the other teams. For the next part of the challenge, competitors will use the software in an actual robot. (Recent column)

That robot was unveiled Thursday (Story). Dubbed Atlas, it's a somewhat intimidating looking 6-2, 330 pound robot with a huge chest and extra-long arms designed to help with disaster response. Created by Boston Dynamics, its hydraulically powered and equipped with both laser and stereo vision systems. It will be used as part of the challenge where teams will compete to provide Atlas with a variety of moves that might be required in disaster response. IHMC will be getting its Atlas later this month.

But before we get too carried away about the robotic future, there was another event with a drone that reminds us a lot of work still needs to be done. A drone aircraft out of Tyndall Air Force Base, Fla., plunged into the Gulf of Mexico near St. Joseph Peninsula State Park after it was destroyed by ground controllers.

Tyndall officials said the unmanned Air Force QF-4 target drone assigned to the 53rd Weapons Evaluation Group was destroyed after it went "haywire." The Vietnam-era Phantom, converted to fly without a pilot, carries a self-destruct charge and was destroyed as it returned to base after a routine operation. That drone is being replaced by QF-16 drones, unmanned Falcon jets. (Post)

Stay tuned, readers.

NASA is offering its expertise and test facilities to potential lunar-lander partners who might be able to help mount scientific missions to the Moon as early as 2018. A July 2 request for information seeks concepts for an industry-developed robotic lander for NASA and commercial missions. Responses are due Aug. 2.

NASA is proposing no-exchange-of-funds partnerships to private companies willing to put up funding for lander development. NASA is piggybacking on the Google Lunar X Prize, $30 million in prizes to teams that can land a robotic spacecraft on the lunar surface. Right now 22 teams worldwide are in the running, working against a deadline of Dec. 31, 2015. NASA has two facilities in the Gulf Coast region: Stennis Space Center, Miss., and Michoud Assembly Facility, New Orleans. (Post)

The Integrated Training Center at Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., has trained the 100th pilot to fly an F-35. Maj. Robert Miller chalked up the milestone when he took to the skies above Eglin July 9. The joint service partners at Eglin have flown 2,292 F-35 hours and have 28 aircraft, the largest fleet of F-35s in the world. About 100 pilots and 2,200 maintainers will be qualified annually through the training system at the base. (Post)

The U.K.'s easyJet firmed up an order for 35 A320s with currently available engines and 100 that will be powered by new, more fuel-efficient engines. EasyJet is the U.K.’s largest airline, carrying 55 million passengers a year. It’s also the largest A320 family customer and operator in Europe. (Post)

Northwest Florida Beaches International Airport near Panama City, Fla., needs new hangars to lure a top tier aerospace company, according to Bay County Economic Development Alliance Director Neal Wade. He wants two hangars at a cost of some $30 million.

Wade said a couple of potential sources for funding are being worked. Airport Executive Director Parker W. McClellan agreed. He said that if one hangar opened, there could be 50 to 200 additional acres of property that could be developed.

Wade noted that in April, an aircraft maintenance company announced the opening of a 400,000-square-foot facility at Alabama's Dothan Regional Airport. The availability of hangar space was key, Wade said. (Post)

-- Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., got a tip of the hat from the Air Force's chief scientist, Mica Endsely. It was during a breakfast during the week that was hosted by the Air Force Association. National Defense magazine reported that Endsley said the future will bring many challenges to Air Force science and technology initiatives. She said the Air Force needs to look at how to better enable rapid innovation, prototyping and testing.

That's when Eglin was mentioned.

"I was down in Eglin a few weeks ago, and I saw where they're developing new munitions systems and new approaches," she said. "They're taking it out on the range right there, testing them, getting rapid data, and coming back and being able to iterate their product and their ideas very rapidly. That's the kind of thing we need to be doing,” she said. (Story)

-- Col. Jay Jensen, commander of the 403rd Wing at Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss., is going to the Pentagon to be senior Air Force policy administrator for the Reserve Forces Policy Board. A new commander will take over the 403rd at the end of this month. The makeup of the 403rd is changing. (Post)

-- The National Naval Aviation Museum is now closed Mondays because of sequestration. The new opening days will remain in effect through September. The museum, which has no cover charge, is closed on Mondays because federal employees handle management of the museum. (Post)

-- Twenty-nine civilian positions will be eliminated at Naval Air Station Pensacola later this year. Another 15 will be eliminated at Naval Air Station Whiting Field in Milton, Fla. In Pensacola, jobs are being cut from force protection, command management and morale, welfare and recreation. The Reduction in Force will occur Nov. 30. (Post)

Air show
Although sequestration grounded the Navy Blue Angels from participating in the summer air show at Pensacola Beach, Fla., the show was held Friday and Saturday with an all-civilian lineup. The crowd was not as large as it is when the Blue Angels fly, but folks came out nontheless. The Blue Angels' home is at nearby Naval Air Station Pensacola. (Post)

GE Aviation, which opened its Ellisville, Miss., plant in May, is now renting laboratory space in The Accelerator innovation center in nearby Hattiesburg, to train new employees to make components for jet engines. Two other new businesses are Vatican Capital, a private equity investment firm that moved to The Accelerator in March, and Radiance Technologies, which moved in at the beginning of the year. The Accelerator business incubator was developed by the University of Southern Mississippi. (Post)

SRI International, Menlo Park, Calif., was awarded a $230 million contract for hardware, software, prototype systems, spiral software enhancements and installation training support for the Digital Video Laboratory III. Air Force Test Center/PZIE, Eglin Air Force Base, Fla., is the contracting activity.

Workers: The demand for jobs in South Mississippi's maritime industry is higher than ever. Huntington Ingalls, VT Halter Marine, both in Pascagoula, and Trinity Yachts in Gulfport are constantly seeking skilled workers for new projects. (Post)

Supply vessels: Edison Chouest Offshore of Galliano, La., will build more than 40 new vessels to meet demand for offshore oil and gas support in the Gulf of Mexico, the Arctic and Brazil. Most of the building will be done at Chouest's North American Shipbuilding in Larose, LaShip in Houma, Gulf Ship in Gulfport, Miss., and Tampa Ship in Tampa, Fla. (Post)

Contract: Raytheon Integrated Defense System, Portsmouth, R.I., was awarded $14.2 million for cost-plus-fixed-fee delivery order #0004 under a previously awarded Basic Ordering Agreement for upgrading the AN/AQS-20A mine hunting sonar 3493-AS-780-9 configuration with a high frequency wide band forward look sonar and multi-function side looking sonar and associated components. The Naval Surface Warfare Center, Panama City Division, Panama City, Fla., is the contracting activity. (Post)

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