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Military and Consumer Drones Have Gone to the Birds

Unmanned air craft are the "in thing". Whether it is the military or the consumer electronics industry, drones are filling the skies. The latest to make the news is a US Army helicopter that has added hovering capabilities to its unmanned aircraft arsenal.

Parrot AR.Drone "duel" in Central Park, New York NY.

Drones are used for both fun and surveillance. Whether flying above the trees in New York?s Central Park or the arid, rugged terrain of Afghanistan, drones are here to stay. However, specifications differ drastically.

The Army?s A160T Turbine Hummingbird built by Boeing carries a 1.8 gigapixel color camera. It employs the new Autonomous Real-time Ground Ubiquitous Surveillance-Imaging System (ARGUS-IS). Argus Panoptes is a Greek mythological giant with one hundred eyes – appropriate for the surveillance duties of the new aircraft. It can run for 12 hours.

Parrot AR.Drone Quadricopter

The AR Drone Quadricopter provides hours of fun for gaming enthusiasts

In contrast, the AR Drone Quadricopter built by Parrot for gaming runs for 12 minutes on its power source. It has two cameras, front and underside. The front camera is a VGA-resolution (640 x 480, 480p) CMOS Camera with a 93 degree wide angle Lens. The underside counterpart has 60 fps video and horizontal stabilization.

Since Boeing?s first A160 flight in 2004, it has seen many improvements. Its camera captures real-time video streams at the rate of 10 frames a second, a tad better than Parrot?s model. Like the AR Drone Quadricopter, the A160T has 4 rotor blades plus two tail blades allowing it to hover in the sky more than 20,000 feet up. It also sports a stabilizing rectangular underfin and retractable wheeled landing gear. The camera scans 65 square miles across and can follow 65 different movements simultaneously. DARPA, the US Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency and BAE Systems, a UK defense contractor, are developing an Argus-IS sensor for night vision.
The A160T Hummingbird is a beautiful work of art. Photo Credit: PM C4ISR OTM

AR Drone hulls come in several colors all in basic orange with either blue, yellow or green highlights. During multiplayer gaming, such as AR Pursuit, it recognizes its playmates through the frontal camera. The A160T is less conspicuous by nature, although much larger than its public gaming counterpart. The A160T is 35 feet long with a 36-foot rotor diameter. The AR Drone, tiny by comparison, weighs in at 380g and measures 52.5 x 51.5 cm with a hull in place. The Hummingbird?s fuselage is constructed with carbon-fiber. An indoor-play hull was created for the AR Drone out of expanded polypropylene. If it runs into a wall, the material will cause it to just bounce back, whereas if the A160 hits a mountain… Opps. The Drone?s internal guidance system consists of MEMS (Micro Electro Mechanical System), 3 Axis Accelerometer, 2 Axis Gyroscope, and 1 Axis Yaw Precision Gyroscope. The Hummingbird runs on preprogrammed missions with manual override when necessary.

The Hummingbird?s original flight control system was designed by Frontier Systems. The AR Drone runs with an embedded computer with ARM9 RISC 32bit processor operating at 468MHz, 128MB DDR RAM, Wi-Fi b/g, Linux OS, and USB socket. It is powered by 4 x 15W electric brushless motors (3,500 rpm), but in a race would be overshadowed by the Hummingbird?s single PW207D turboshaft engine which can produce a continuous 426.7kW (572shp).

AR Pursuit is available from iTunes for $2.99
AR Pursuit is available from iTunes for $2.99

First developed for the IOS devices, the AR Drone is now available for selected Android devices. Apps are available at both the AppStore and Android Market. Would-be application developers can obtain AR Drone Navigation software for free.

We?ll hear more about the for-play and for-real helicopters in 2012. Parrot will be at CES again in January. They won last year?s Innovations Award for Electronic Gaming Hardware. Boeing?s entry should make its active debut with the military in Afghanistan later next year.