Wednesday, January 23, 2008

ASC enabling next-gen robotics?

it’s a potentially game-changing partnership. “We get our robot mad scientists together with the laser mad scientists…I believe its going to be transformational for the robot field,”

... and if Helen Greiner is excited, so am I.

She's the Chairman and Co-founder of iRobot, not the Will Smith adventure movie, the Burlington, MA based robotics firm supplying our Armed Forces with hundreds, and probably thousands, of bomb-disposal robots over the next several years.

The "game-changing" partnership is with Advanced Scientific Concepts (ASC) of Santa Barbara, CA. ASC makes a laser camera that will allow robots to "see" more effectively, mapping areas with a single laser flash.

Greiner and iRobot believe this will enable robots to make navigation decisions in near-real-time and facilitate much more advanced applications (she's picturing unmanned HUMVEEs, tanks... NYC cabs... you get the point)

"they're not on robots yet"... and I guess that's the sticky point, because you've still got to design the Artificial Intelligence, the "brain" that enables a bunch of nuts and bolts to utilize this great set of "eyes".

At least with all the money the Army is spending to procure the iRobot FCS SUGV, the company should be able to fund a bunch more R&D. We're looking forward.

Cheap commercial counter-MANPAD solution?

Let me extend a premature congrats to Northrop Grumman on "exceeding expectations" in live-fire testing, and "topping reliability goals" for their Guardian counter-MANPADS system.

The system is a DIRCM (Directed InfraRed Counter-Measure) solution being tested by DHS, alonside a BAE product, JETEYE, for commercial use in protecting aircraft from shoulder-fired rockets. Basically, it uses laser energy to disrupt an incoming rocket, and causes ito to hit something other than the plane. Hopefully not small children elsewhere, or air traffic control...

I am especially curious about the price quoted in the article. According to a Northrop Grumman executive... "Pledger said modification of the sixteen jetliners would cost between $300,000 and $400,000, a modest amount well worth spending."

I think he's been misinterpreted, or perhaps we're being purposely led astray. The critical word they've left out is "each". $300K-$400K per aircraft. Right? Also, how many units produced would achieve that price point? Certainly not 16! Previous price quotes all dealt in terms of the "thousandth unit produced", so the quote seems misleading in a few ways....

Not surprising, coming from let's all put a "Strong Buy" on NOC and its bargain basement C-MANPADS solution :-/
Well, even if the price quoted is supposed to be per aircraft, it's still much cheaper than the $1m per aircraft price point the DHS hoped industry could fall below. It's even cheaper than previous Northrop Grumman quotes, if I recall correctly, were $500K and above at the 1000th unit.

Monday, January 21, 2008

Shadow UAV goes Hyperspectral

Exciting news for the Army and BAE systems who just recently completed a transaction for 5 hyperspectral sensors, to be mounted on the Shadow tactical-sized UAS.

The commitment had been agreed upon in October 2006, and it's not entirely clear that the objective requirements are all met. In the original release BAE expected aircraft with usuable payload as low as 15 pounds to carry the sensors... in the current release BAE indicates it will be limited to aircraft with usable payloads of at least 35 pounds. Of course, development is an on-going process...

The technology is expected to reduce burden on the warfighter in asset-locating, targeting, search & rescue operations, etc. The "latest and greatest" ISR tool.

Hyperspectrals analyze refracted light from everything within their field of view, across a much broader spectrum than the visible bands (about 15-18 times as many, as I understand) and use this information to identify particular points of interest (without having to rely human eyes). Hyperspectrals use three methods of analysis:

  • Identify anomalies within a particular field-of-view
  • Identify a pre-programmed signature
  • Identify change, in comparison to a previous analysis of the same field-0f-view (the system is outfitted with GPS)

I am curious. The usefulness of the second two functions seem dependent on either knowing what composition you are searching for, or, having a previously mapped record to compare with.

How many pre-programmed signatures can you utilize at once? How many does the Army need?

How can you effectively utilize the change detection function (we have to pre-map all the areas we think Iraqis and Afghanis are going to hide weapons? Or all the places we think our sailors or airmen will go missing?)

Someone please clarify.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

SBInet Update. Is Telephonics Ripe?

Telephonics Corporation was contracted by the CBP in early January, to provide a Mobile Surveillance System that is supposed to support a more complete Common Operating Picture for SBInet.

From the Telephonics release:

"its Eletronic Systems Division was awarded a $14.5M contract from the U.S. General Services Administration on behalf of U.S. Customs and Border Protection MSS provides, for the first time, a fully integrated system including Ground Surveillance Radar, EO/IR sensors, accurate GPS location data along with a Common Operating Picture"

Boeing is noticeably absent in the press on this award. Did DHS bypass Boeing to award this to Telephonics, or is that a mispeception?

Telephonics is owned by Griffon Corp, and appear to have been part of Boeing's SBInet plan for some time; they were one of four companies Boeing lists as contractors for short/long-range ground surveillance radar (Boeing website)

Griffon's Electronic Systems business has truly taken off over the past three years. Profits expanded from ~$18M in 2005 to nearly $46M in 2007.

It is apparent the technology is near the top of the market. Telephonics radar, electronics, and expertise have also been bought recently by the Navy (MH-60R helicopter), the Coast Guard, and the Missile Defense Agency.

Telephonics and Syracuse Research Corp have also been working together on Counter-IED technologies, adding to the company's credibility. Syracuse Research is another hot up-comer in radar and electronics.

I expect Lockheed Martin, Raytheon, and Northrop Grumman are all eyeing Telephonics very closely. It appears to offer a level of technology that is facilitating net-centric operations across several different markets, and competeing for business historically owned by those larger, more traditional, radar & electronics names

Griffon (the parent company) is likely best known for it's Telephonics business. Other ventures include: "plastic films used in the baby diaper, feminine napkin, adult incontinent, surgical and patient care markets...garage doors sold to professional installing dealers and major home center retail chains"

haha, prepare to see Lockheed Martin or Raytheon logos on feminine products and garages near you!

Sunday, January 13, 2008

UAV Acquisitions & Divestitures

Small/Tactical UAV Market Shake-up? The small/tactical segment of UAV is expanding, and players are consolidating, what are the implications?

Acquisition: Textron decided, in Early October 2007, to purchase AAI (United Industrial Corp.) for $1.1B.

AAI has strong revenues, a fine track record to point to with its Shadow program, contracts on the board as the FCS Class I (MAV) sub to Honeywell, an international presence in new subsidairy Aerosonde (US Navy/USMC Tier II competitor), and interesting RDT&E efforts (iSTAR platform, proposed/stalled FCS Class II).

Divestitures?: BAE systems sold it's Inertial Products business last year which was a UAV guidance and navigation payload provider... MTC technologies recently pulled out of the potential ~$1B Tier II competition for the USMC/US Navy, and had to return RDT&E funding to the USMC for the demonstrator they had operated (a net Q4 charge of $6.7M, in total).

Late Dec. 2007, we learn BAE is spending $450M to acquire MTC Technologies. It doesn't seem like the acquisition has anything to do with UAV... but that's still unclear. Are they both moving forward with or without UAV?

Upcoming Small/Tactical UAV Award: USN/USMC Tier II

Textron's prior record as an LSI in UAVs could be considered poor. The Eagle Eye VTOL platform was chosen as the next-generation Coast Guard UAV for the fiasco Deepwater program. The project never really got off the ground... well OK, it did fly, but also apparently crashed... now the Coast Guard assessing its options, and at least the DoD 2007 Unmanned Systems Roadmap still places Eagle Eye in service before 2014

After MTC technologies parted ways with the USMC, the Navy began testing the Raytheon/Swift Engineering Killerbee platform for weaponization, at China Lake.

How does AAI/Aerosonde/Textron stack up to Raytheon/Swift, Boeing/Insitu and other potential Tier II platforms?

Is BAE still pursuing it's Tier II bid?

SBInet progress

The Virtual Fence is in hot water. Before we can address our border-jumping-beans, Boeing has to open the network and prove it can catch them.

Boeing has been managing the first task in the program, 28 mile proof-of-concept "Project 28" that is just now nearing "completion".

Boeing is not meeting milestones. It's now about 7 months later than anticipated (was supposed to be done mid-June 2007).

Some are calling for DHS to reject the progress, but can it yet??

They recently awarded Boeing an additional $64 million to develop software for the common-operating-picture... so, hopefully Boeing's cost over-runs were on the physical engineering (moving earth and turning bolts for the towers themselves), and now they're ready to get down to business!

Checking Boeing's website raises questions... 3 different subcontractors for ground sensor radars. 4 different subs providing EO/IR cameras. I don't know what a "microwave digital back-haul system" is, exactly, but if they've got 2 vendors hauling microwaves... maybe Boeing's stove isn't the best way to cook these beans.

What if the DHS had gone with a radar and sensors guru, like Northrop Grumman or Raytheon? Would they have had the tools in-house?

What if they had gone with the communications giant, Ericsson? Could they have netted it all together by now?

Saturday, January 12, 2008

Rechargeable Urban UAV

They call it Power Line Urban Sentry. AFRL and Defense Research Associates (DRA, Dayton Ohi0) are exploring the concept of a small, battery-powered, battlefield UAV, rechargeable by power-lines. It would latch on power lines and draw current from them.

It could have important applications. Discreet perch and stare/sensor insertion at forward urban locations. The battery-powered design facilitates silent operation, and researchers (Rick Lind, U FLorida, Center for Morphing Technology) are concerning themselves with methods of disguise. Morphing technologies, pretty interesting!

"He made a small UAV look like a Coke can,"..."One goal of the PLUS program is to create a small UAV that seems to disappear by morphing into a shape that doesn't look out of place on a power line. So Marshall and McKinley asked Lind to join their efforts in 2006.

If the UAV looks "like a coke-can", doesn't it follow the ISR is soda-straw? More likely it will look like a trash-can... well damn, what if it perched like one of those gray cylinders at the top of a standard utility pole?

"An energy-harvesting UAV could be equipped also with multiple sensors. "The idea is that when you're recharging, you have all that power from the line to do whatever you need," McKinley observes."

Really, whatever sensors you need? How much is this expected going to weigh/carry?

What's the timeframe for testing on this? Pretty cool.