AutoMatters: On The Fly: Technology Takes Off


By Jan. R. Wagner

Before the Wright brothers made their historic first flight at Kitty Hawk, in December of 1903, they experimented with unmanned aircraft. The ultimate goal for their endeavor was for an on-board human being to control a powered aircraft over an extended distance. They succeeded.

Now, over 100 years later, aviation technology has come full circle. Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are increasingly flown in a variety of situations, some especially challenging and dangerous, to accomplish a wide variety of tasks.

A fascinating, new, interactive exhibition at San Diego’s Reuben H. Fleet Science Center explains the technology of UAVs and explores some of the many ways that they are used.

The centerpiece of this exhibition is an indoor, choreographed flight demonstration consisting of four identical quadricopters developed by French company Parrot. These small-scale UAVs perform complex, precise aerobatics. Many times each day, in tight formations and in sync with music and each other, they flip, dive and hover in the air, entertaining and amazing the gathered crowds in the UAV arena, as they stand captivated by the show that unfolds before them.

The key to the UAV’s ability to repeatedly perform their maneuvers in a relatively small, enclosed space, and within close proximity of each other, lies in their modern aviation technology. Each UAV has four rotors, the blades of which can be adjusted as a group for pitch, to give the UAVs precise directional control. The rotational speed of the rotors is variable, to control thrust and lift. Additionally they use magnetometers, pressure sensors, ultrasound sensors, gyroscopes and battery operated, electric motors.

Digital media and large, illustrated graphics help to tell the story of this developing technology and its many uses, providing answers to questions such as: why are there four propellers, how do they know where to go and how does propeller shape affect flight?

UAVs are deployed by the military to accomplish vital missions without putting flight crews in harms way. They can be flown long distances behind enemy lines, or conveniently launched into the air close to their destination. Small UAVs with electric motors are well suited for covert aerial surveillance, and can easily be transported from place to place. Larger drones can be equipped with a variety of weaponry, for stealthy deployment in dangerous situations. Highly maneuverable, a Northrop Grumman X-47B drone recently made history when it accomplished the difficult task of making a carrier landing.

UAVs are used by law enforcement, fire department personnel and other first responders to locate missing children, fight crime and respond to other emergencies. They can provide rapid food, water and equipment deliveries to people impacted by disasters, and help the Coast Guard locate survivors in rescue missions. UAVs help the Border Patrol keep our borders secure. They help monitor and protect the environment. Their design and manufacture provides highly skilled, well-paying employment across the country in a variety of fields.

UAVs can operate and respond where conditions are often too dangerous for manned vehicles, such as in natural disasters like volcanoes, hurricanes, floods and earthquakes; and around man-made disasters such as explosions and radiation leaks.

Environmental organizations and governments utilize unmanned systems to provide early warning of environmental problems, monitor forests for illegal logging, detect invasive species in vegetation, and monitor wildlife and soil erosion.

In agriculture, UAVs provide farmers with a cost-effective way to spray crops with fertilizers, pesticides and fungicides; plan improvements in field drainage; map and estimate acreage and crop types; develop crop yield estimates; survey sloped, muddy or dangerous terrain; and check for signs of drought and blight.

The ongoing development and utilization of unmanned systems provides educational and research opportunities in science, technology, mathematics and engineering.

Commercial uses of UAVs include such far ranging applications as remote real estate tours, insurance claim inspections, resort marketing, event security, exploration and virtual travel. We are only just beginning to appreciate the possibilities and opportunities.

In addition to UAVs, interactive exhibits include workstations stocked with supplies, where visitors can use their creativity to explore aerodynamics by building their own flying objects, and then testing them in wind tubes and a state-of-the-art, motorized airplane launcher.

Thank you for flying FleetAir! “On The Fly: Technology Takes Off” will be at the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego’s Balboa Park from now through to the end of December, 2013. For more information, visit:


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Copyright © 2013 by Jan Wagner – #292