2012 Issue 1, PSI's New Small Unmanned Aerial System (sUAS)

Jan 04, 2012

With reauthorization of the Small Business Innovation Research (SBIR) and companion STTR programs for six years, and a slight increase in the allocation of federal R&D dollars to them, the small business community can continue to be the most innovative force in the nation. To reach these programs’ full potential as an economic engine, however, more must be done to exploit SBIR technology in applications ranging from national security and healthcare to commercial products and services.

A first step has been taken by the Department of Defense in its Rapid Innovation Program (RIP). Over a two year period, almost $700M will be spent to transition SBIR technology from Phase II levels of technology readiness to “Phase III” funded DoD programs and procurements. The opportunity for technology transition is best illustrated by the almost 3,500 RIP proposals received by the military services and the Office of the Secretary of Defense. There is clearly a need to expand this program, even while it is undergoing evaluation.

Group Photo 2

Senator Scott Brown and fellow Massachusetts awardees at the Small Business Technology Coalition SBIR reception in Washington, DC

As an example of accelerated technology transition to support our troops in the field and law enforcement at home, this newsletter focuses on PSI’s development of the InstantEye airborne surveillance system. Growing out of SBIR and STTR projects, this system has rapidly matured into a flight test and evaluation program in theater. Scores of similar examples can be cited, as was done during the SBIR reauthorization process, but there could be many others, with thousands of commercial applications. Each federal agency involved in SBIR should create its own version of the RIP, and barriers such as the counter-productive cost-sharing requirements at the Department of Energy must be eliminated.

For nearly two years, PSI’s Tactical Robotics Group, led by Dr. Thomas Vaneck and Dr. Richard Guiler have been developing InstantEye, an innovative small unmanned autonomous system (sUAS), which will become a vital surveillance tool for soldiers, civilian police forces, and border control. The vehicle can be easily stowed and deployed on-the-fly for examining roof tops, looking around corners, identifying IEDs or clearing mountain caves. Its quad-rotor design provides a nimble, hovering platform—ideal for carrying its two high-resolution cameras and combating windy/gusty environments. The vehicle returns real-time video and location information to a small ground controller.

Thomas Vaneck 2

Thomas Vaneck

InstantEye has forward and down-ward facing cameras. The downward pointing camera is ideal for overhead surveillance and tracking of objects. The forward facing camera is used to inspect doorways and windows, investigate difficult to reach areas, and maneuvering within cluttered environments. Each camera is equipped with an infrared LED to enable covert night operations.

The InstantEye team has iterated on numerous designs and is currently working on a compact version to be tested in the field this summer by the Marines, Army, and Special Forces. InstantEye’s greatest advantage is its reflexive autopilot and sensors, which allow for autonomous hovering around a GPS point while combating winds and gusts. The tiny vehicle uses the world’s smallest autopilot, which was developed at PSI.

Richard Guiler

Richard Guiler

Several flight modes are used to control InstantEye including manual, altitude hold, and GPS hold. Manual mode allows the operator to fly the vehicle like an RC helicopter while collecting real-time video images. Altitude hold mode allows the vehicle to hover over the ground at a prescribed distance. GPS hold allows the operator to select GPS coordinates where the vehicle will hover even when the controller is put down. This is ideal for soldiers in the field who are looking for a quick glimpse of where an object of interest is located.

PSI Instant Eye

PSI's InstantEye, an innovative small unmanned autonomous system (sUAS)

InstantEye has been fabricated with the battlefield in mind. The 20cm frame is constructed of custom carbon fiber components and rods that make it robust to collisions and extreme conditions. High-use components such as the motors and propellers can be easily replaced if damaged. The quad-rotor can be used in covert operations. The motors are electric, so they are virtually inaudible at 50 ft and the vehicle is visibly indistinguishable at 100 ft. All electronics and cameras are waterproof, so InstantEye can be flown in any environmental condition.

The ground station is a battery powered, lightweight, handheld controller. It uses two joysticks and several mode buttons. A heads-up display shows GPS coordinates, flight altitude, and video from two cameras. The high resolution screen is readable in sunlight and has a sunshade for covert operations. This controller packs easily into an assault pack.

Biological Inspiration


The physical design of InstantEye is also biologically inspired

The hardware and controls of InstantEye were biologically inspired. PSI scientists studied insects to see how they avoid obstacles and recover from in-air-collisions. In the PSI green house, scientists are studying Hawkmoth flight with high-speed cameras and a VICON Motion Tracking System. The VICON provides full state-space information of the insect during flight by tracking tiny reflective markers affixed to the insects. Due to the small size of the insects, a miniature tracking harness was created and attached to the insect’s back where it does not hinder flight. From the information gathered by the VICON, a “reflexive controller” was developed that can quickly sense and recover from in-flight collisions or violent environmentally induced disturbances. This was critical for developing robust autonomous flight controls.

The physical design of InstantEye is also biologically inspired. When a fly collides with a glass pane, it pitches up and uses its wings to thrust away from the obstacle. Using a biometric design, this same recovery motion was duplicated on InstantEye. With this configuration, when the vehicle collides with an object it pitches up and the rotors push the vehicle away from the obstacle – motion identical to that seen during insect collisions.

Hawk Moth

PSI scientists studied insects to see how they avoid obstacles and recover from in-air-collisions

Future Plans

This year, the InstantEye team plans on further refining the vehicle’s control system and extending its range. Also, prototypes are being created to make the vehicle more compact to lighten the load of soldiers in the field. The ground station will be enhanced with training videos and a revision of the heads-up display. Overall, the Instant-Eye team is committed to flying—rain or shine—to improve situational awareness for our soldiers in combat situations.

The research reported in this document was performed in connection with contract W911QX-10-C-0086 with the U.S. Army Research Laboratory and contract FA9550-10-C-0044 with the U.S. Air Force. The views and conclusions contained in this document are those of the authors and should not be interpreted as presenting the official policies or position, either expressed or implied, of the U.S. Army Research Laboratory, U.S. Air Force, or the U.S. Government unless so designated by other authorized documents. Citation of manufacturer’s or trade names does not constitute an official endorsement or approval of the use thereof. The U.S. Government is authorized to reproduce and distribute reprints for Government purposes notwithstanding any copyright notation hereon.

Contract News

PSI recently received the following SBIR research contracts:

“Green Liquid Monopropellant Thruster for In-Space Propulsion” from NASA Glenn Research Center;

“Optical Hull Surface Contaminant Detection System” from the US Naval Sea Systems Command;

“Monolithic Integrated Optics TDLAS Sensors and Networks” from the US Army Research, Development and Engineering Command.

Donna Lamb

C. Bielmeier, R. Guiler, T. Vaneck, and R. Weiss

A publication of
Physical Sciences Inc.
Copyright © 2012. All rights reserved