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Unless my understanding of the universe is deeply flawed, something about space heaters just doesn’t add up. In this video, I talk about that.
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If your vision of the flying future involves whooshing about in an air taxi while chuckling at the car-bound suckers below, Elroy Air is not here to help. But if you dream of a world of smooth logistics, where emergency supplies, firefighting chemicals, and all the crap you order online moves through the world faster and cheaper than ever, then 2019 might be your year.
“We’re developing a big cargo drone,” says Elroy CEO Dave Merrill. One that will carry 500 pounds and fly 300 miles at a time. One he intends to start testing this year and to put into service come 2020.
The aerospace engineers staffing the San Francisco-based startup have spent the past two years developing that drone, the Chaparral. Like most of the new aircraft being proposed for moving people and their stuff these days, it will take off and land vertically, like a helicopter, using six rotors. Those draw power from a battery mounted near the nose of the catamaran-like craft. When it turns to horizontal flight, a seventh, tail-mounted rotor—Elroy calls it the “pusher”—will go to work, with lift coming from the 29-foot wing. That rotor is powered by a gas-powered internal combustion engine that sits near the tail.
Cargo won’t go inside the Chaparral itself, instead riding in a pod attached to the aircraft’s belly. When it shows up, the Chaparral uses a grasping mechanism to grab the pod, winches it in until it’s snug against the fuselage, and then it latches on. (Merrill declined to describe the system in detail.) This way, a pod can be fully packed or unpacked on the ground while the drone is carrying a full pod wherever it needs to go. The idea is to minimize turnaround time, and it’s the same thinking that led Airbus to patent a patently absurd idea for detachable, swappable airplane cabins.
As for what goes inside those pods, Merrill points to the potential for moving humanitarian supplies, like food, water, and blood. But he sees commercial cargo as the biggest opportunity, as in helping move all the stuff you order online: clothes, books, gadgets, whatever. So, while the Chaparral could fit into a landing zone the size of six car parking spaces, it’s not about to land in your front yard. Merrill is targeting what he calls “internal legs.” So when you order your new smartphone, an ocean freighter or cargo plane takes it from the factory in China to the US, along with a billion other things. Then, Elroy would carry a portion of those goods to the distribution center nearest you. From there, a smaller vehicle, maybe a van, maybe a robot reminiscent of a toaster, would bring your package to your door. Merrill says he has had quite a bit of interest from potential customers.
Like a similar concept from Boeing, Elroy’s model could also work well for places that are hard to reach: small islands, oil rigs, areas with poor road infrastructure, and places hit by natural disasters. “We don’t need an airport to be at point A or point B,” Merrill says.
Elroy will, however, need to accomplish a lot more testing before it can start running its aircraft in a commercial service. That program should begin this year, gradually proving that the aircraft is safe, reliable, and as capable as the team says. Then comes certification, likely to be an expensive and time-consuming process. And then building a sustainable business in a market overflowing with would-be players. But with a relatively simple design and a focused business plan, the company looks to be starting from solid ground.
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A three-dimensional “bow tie” geofence will soon prevent DJI’s drones from being able to fly too close to major European airports. While the company’s drones have included geofencing technology since 2013, the new tech — developed by aviation tech company Altitude Angel — expands the restricted zone from a simple two-dimensional circle to a much larger three-dimensional zone.
The announcement comes after drone sightings caused Gatwick, the UK’s second-largest airport, to shut down in the run-up to Christmas, grounding hundreds of flights. Although a local couple was arrested by police, they were later released without charge. As a result, we still don’t know who was responsible or what brand of drone was used. Both Gatwick and Heathrow airports have also purchased their own anti-drone systems in the wake of the disruption.
DJI’s new system, which it’s dubbed Geospatial Environment Online (GEO) 2.0, uses three different sizes of exclusion zone, depending on the size of the airport. Along with restricting flights in an oval around the runway itself, the geofence also includes an “Altitude Zone” at both ends of the airport. This last zone is three-dimensional, meaning you can still fly a drone at lower altitudes once you’re far enough away from the runway.
Along with the United Kingdom, DJI says the update will be coming to 32 European countries in total, including 19 countries that previously had no geofencing support at all. The GEO 2.0 update will be available starting later this month, and it will require users to update the firmware on their drone as well as the companion DJI Go 4 mobile app.
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Get ready to stick some ID on the outside of your drone — starting February 23rd, a new FAA rule will require all small unmanned aircraft to have their registration markings visible on the outside of their body, so law enforcement can easily find their owners.
In a preview document published at the Federal Register (spotted by Bloomberg), the FAA says the move is in response to terrorism fears, specifically “the risk a concealed explosive device poses to first responders who must open a compartment to find the small unmanned aircraft’s registration number.”
Currently, US law requires that you register certain classes of drones with the FAA and mark them with your ID number — yes, even though drone registration was successfully challenged in court, Trump later signed it into law — but the FAA has always let you stick that sticker somewhere hidden, like inside your drone’s battery compartment. Not anymore.
Technically, the rule is currently just in preview at the Federal Register, won’t be published until tomorrow, and citizens will have a 30-day comment period to respond. But the FAA argues the need is urgent enough that it’s firing off the rule just 10 days after publication.
That’s not the only drone-related news in preview at the Federal Register today, by the way. Though the FAA is still poised to majorly relax its rules about flying your drone at night and over crowds of people, the agency now says it won’t be doing that until it can figure out a system to let it remotely track and identify drones at a distance, something the industry is also working on itself (here’s what we learned about DJI’s Aeroscope), and it’s asking the public to comment on what sorts of performance and legal restrictions it should place on drones before they’re allowed to do those things.
For nighttime, where the FAA says it’s never had a reported accident, the agency is considering that operators might merely need to complete some extra training and have a drone with a light that’s visible three miles away. But for flying over crowds, the FAA thinks it might create three new categories of drones, with ones weighing 0.55 pounds or less being freely able to fly over people, while heavier drones might need to have speed, altitude, location, and injury “severity threshold” requirements so they’re safe enough to use.
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