An odd-looking "perching" drone is back — almost eight years after the Army cut it adrift from the now-defunct Future Combat Systems program.
It's called the GoldenEye, and as the name suggests, the ducted-fan unmanned aerial vehicle has a history steeped in 007-type spying, sabotage, and clandestine operations.
We first came across the upright drone last October at the University of Maryland, which hosted a "precision delivery" symposium attended by aerospace types from the government, military, and commercial industries.
Aurora Flight Sciences, the aerospace company that produced the husky-looking GoldenEye, stood the man-sized contraption in the hallway, painted white with a big red cross and a parcel dispenser labeled "urgent delivery" strapped to the side.
It was a crude sales pitch, but one to behold.
The GoldenEye on display was essentially a military drone in humanitarian clothing, and an extreme departure from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency's attempt to create a tactical reconnaissance drone for Army missions in the early 2000s.
The original plan was for this particular version — known as the Mark 80 — to quietly "perch" like a bird on rooftops, while spotting and laser-designating enemy forces. The concept also called for multiple GoldenEyes to establish 4G local area networks to connect friendlies.
An earlier, larger version known as the Clandestine UAV — or Mark 100 — would have littered the battlefield with small electronic warfare devices to jam enemy communication networks and radars.
Aurora built three Mark 80s, but like many far-out military experiments, they're now sitting in a hangar with no mission and no development program to move the technology forward.
Instead of looking for new military buyers, Aurora now imagines repurposing the drones for civil missions, such as resupplying medical units inside quarantine zones in Africa. Another possibility is using it as a door-to-door delivery drone in suburban America.
"There's an urgent need to deliver packages in quarantined areas," Aurora Chairman and CEO John Langford explained at the conference. "That's a perfect role for these kinds of robotic systems early on. You could deliver in supplies and bring out blood samples for analysis."
According to Langford, Aurora brought the GoldenEye out of storage after 60 Minutes aired a story about Amazon boss Jeff Bezos' plan to deliver packages to customers with a quadcopter.
The piece by 60 Minutes reporter Charlie Rose shook up the drone market, because people now talked about drones for purposes other than dropping Hellfire missiles on the Taliban.
"The Bezos thing was kind of a turning point," Langford said. "It was like, ‘Wow, we've got the answer sitting right here in our hangar.' You could do this now."
In a follow-up interview on March 11, Langford explained how the GoldenEye-80 evolved from a DARPA research project in 1999 into a stealthy air vehicle for urban reconnaissance missions.
In 2004, the drone joined the Army's now-shuttered Future Combat Systems program — a quixotic, $200 billion program to create a futuristic combat brigade.
Had FCS succeeded, the Army would have replaced the M-1 Abrams tank and Bradley fighting vehicle with 18 different types of manned and unmanned vehicles connected over a wireless network.
The "perch-and-stare" GoldenEye-80 would have helped, too — by moving into towns, perching on top of buildings, and keeping an eye out for targets.
The Army Night Vision Laboratory gave the drone a specialized sensor ball with electro-optical and infrared cameras and a laser designator, making the flying marksman the ultimate spy gadget. The prototype could carry a 20-pound payload for up to four hours. Though in practice, it could stay out much longer … as perching requires no fuel.
But the Army killed the FCS program in 2009. The GoldenEye-80 became one of its many abandoned children.
According to Langford, the Army cut GoldenEye and several other air vehicles from the combat brigade plan as part of program restructure. Aurora continued developing it internally for a few years, but no other military programs picked it up.
"I always saw that as being a re-deployable ground sensor, so that you could land on the edge of a building roof and just sit there," Langford said.
"You don't need to be burning gas," he continued. "You could just sit on the edge of a building and use this great sensor to watch what was going on — and if you needed to, you could just takeoff and move yourself. I still believe this is really one of the great missions these systems could do."
Now, Aurora wants to take the GoldenEye back to its original "Clandestine UAV" mission — package delivery.
Langford explained that DARPA originally wanted a stealthy UAV with a low acoustic signature to autonomously plant Coke can-sized electronic warfare devices to jam, confuse and locate enemy radars, radios, and air-defense systems.
Airborne jammers like the Navy's EA-18G Growler and EA-6B Prowler are far more powerful, but tend to cause widespread electromagnetic fratricide. DARPA's "WolfPack" program, though, produced smaller devices that could take out enemy electronics in a targeted way.
Aurora built its larger GoldenEye Mark 100 as the delivery vehicle to drop the pods off from a hover, much like what Amazon, Google, and DHL are doing with their domestic drones.
The problem is — those smaller quadcopter devices can only deliver one package at a time, whereas the GoldenEye-100 is more of mail truck, making multiple stops.
Langford said perhaps the biggest breakthroughs with the GoldenEye have nothing to do with the weird looking airframe, but instead reside internally in the flight control systems and software algorithms. That's the piece where he said the military has done the hard yards and spent the most money.
"Are people doing science projects to have fun or do they really want to do a mission?" he asked. "We don't have all of the other problems solved, but we understand them and we're working on them."
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