Hot stuff: The coolest drones

From unmanned aircraft swarms to space systems, drones are hot.

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Credit: Northrop Grumman/Chad Slattery/Handout via Reuters
Drones

The world of drones -- military and public -- is changing so fast it’s hard to keep up with the changes. Here we take a look at some of the most recent advancements, such as getting drones to fly as a group, deliver orders in restaurants and take advanced technology into space. Read on:

Related: What the drone invasion looks like

The most magnificent high-tech flying machines

Swarming
Credit: YouTube.com
Swarming

The Office of Naval Research recently said it had successfully demonstrated a system that lets small-unmanned aircraft swarm and act together over a particular target. The system, called Low-Cost UAV Swarming Technology (LOCUST) features a tube-based launcher that can send multiple drones into the air in rapid succession. The systems then use information sharing between the drones, allowing autonomous collaborative behavior in either defensive or offensive missions, the Navy said.

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Hanging drones

Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) is developing a low-cost, fully automated parafoil system to extend small ships’ long‐distance communications. Known as a Towed Airborne Lift of Naval Systems, or TALONS, the drone is towed behind boats or ships, and hauls communications payloads of up to 150 pounds between 500 and 1,500 feet in the air -- many times higher than current ships’ masts -- and greatly extends the equipment’s range and effectiveness.

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Mix and match

Back at DARPA, researchers are looking to develop algorithms and software that would extend the mission capabilities of existing unmanned aircraft systems beyond the current state of the art. DARPA’s Collaborative Operations in Denied Environment (CODE) program would let mixed teams of unmanned aircraft to find targets and engage them. CODE envisions improvements that would help transform UAS operations from requiring multiple people to operate a single UAS to having one person able to oversee six or more unmanned vehicles simultaneously.

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Credit: REUTERS/Edgar Su
Your order

A bartender watches as an Infinium-Serve Flying Robot takes off with an order at a restaurant. The drone, a working model designed by firm Infinium Robotics that specializes in drone development, aims to free up restaurant staff to do "higher value tasks" by accurately delivering orders up to 500 grams to tables within the premise through anti-collision algorithms, the firm says.

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Credit: Reuters
Wait a minute

Graphic showing results on a Reuters/Ipsos poll on how Americans view drones – from February.

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A drone gatherer

DARPA says its SideArm program seeks to create a self-contained, portable machine able to horizontally launch and retrieve drones of up to 900 pounds from trucks, ships and fixed ground facilities. DARPA developed SideArm as part of Tern, a joint program between DARPA and the U.S. Navy’s Office of Naval Research that seeks to enable forward-deployed small ships to serve as mobile launch and recovery sites for medium-altitude, long-endurance drones.

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Credit: REUTERS/Skip Peterson
Drone swarm

The Air Force is pondering what it would take to develop a small, low-cost unmanned aircraft that it could fly in swarms to handle a number of applications such as protecting a given area or quickly gathering intelligence. From the Air Force in a Request For Information: “The thought is to develop an inexpensive, configurable and producible on demand air vehicle. A number of military applications can be envisioned for an air vehicle with such a capability. One potential application is to use hundreds or thousands of such units in a campaign to overwhelm an enemy’s air defenses and “punch a hole” to enable higher value, less replaceable [aircraft] to engage or monitor enemy systems.

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Credit: REUTERS/Liz Wolter
Flying and drinking

The Navy's unmanned X-47B aircraft receives fuel from an Omega K-707 tanker plane while operating in the Atlantic Test Ranges over the Chesapeake Bay, Md., April 22, 2015. This test marked the first time an unmanned aircraft refueled in flight.

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Drone pack

Could a small pack of drones be launched from the underside of a B-52 to swarm a target or gather intelligence? That in part is what researchers at DARPA are looking to explore. The agency recently put out a Request For Information to explore the feasibility and value of launching and recovering volleys of small unmanned aircraft from one or more existing large airplanes – think B-52, B-1, C-130.

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Credit: REUTERS/Wolfgang Rattay
The FAA Part 1

The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration recently announced tests of drones in urban areas as well as outside the pilot’s line-of-sight, possibly paving the way for operations such as the aerial delivery of packages as proposed by companies like Amazon.com. The Pathfinder Program will explore three key types of unmanned operations. PrecisionHawk, a drone manufacturer, will be surveying crops in rural areas using unmanned aircraft flying outside of the pilot’s direct vision, while BNSF Railroad will test the unmanned aircraft systems to inspect their rail infrastructure beyond visual line-of-sight in isolated areas. News network CNN will be testing drones for news gathering in urban areas.

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Credit: REUTERS/Michaela Rehle
The FAA Part 2

The FAA and Department of Transportation proposed in February new rules that would let companies fly drones of less than 55 pounds at an altitude of up to 500 feet and at speeds of up to 100 miles per hour during daylight hours. The drone must be flown by a licensed drone operator and kept within visual line-of-sight at all times.

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Super secret

The forthcoming unmanned, secretive X-37B spacecraft will include a test version of an ion engine that could keep spaceships in orbit longer while making them more maneuverable. The Air Force Research Laboratory made the unprecedented announcement that that X-37B will soon blast into space with what’s known as a Hall thruster experiment onboard the flight vehicle. A Hall thruster is a type of electric propulsion device that produces thrust by ionizing and accelerating a noble gas, usually xenon. Hall thrusters provide significantly greater specific impulse, or fuel economy. This results in increased payload carrying capacity and a greater number of on-orbit maneuvers for a spacecraft.

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NASA's 10 engine helicopter/aircraft hybrid drone

NASA recently said it successfully flew its battery-powered 10 engine drone that can take off like a helicopter and fly like an aircraft. The concept aircraft, known as Greased Lightning or GL-10 could be used for small package delivery, long endurance reconnaissance for agriculture, mapping and other survey applications. A scaled up version could even be used as a four person size personal air vehicle, NASA researchers said.

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The flying circuit board

The Naval Research Laboratory has been testing its tiny Close-In Covert Autonomous Disposable Aircraft (CICADA) which it envisions as a disposable air vehicle that can be deployed in large numbers to "seed" an area with miniature electronic payloads. These payloads could be interconnected to form an ad-hoc, self-configuring network which could be placed in a programmable geometric pattern in hostile territory without directly over-flying those regions or exposing human agents on the ground. Eighteen CICADAs can be contained in a six-inch cube.

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AdVantage

The Vantage is an unmanned helicopter being developed by US Naval Research Laboratory (NRL). The helicopter weighs 380 pounds and measures 112 inches long with a rotor diameter of 109 inches. Vantage has an estimated endurance of 3 to 5 hours, a dash speed of 100 kts (185 km/h), and a service ceiling of 8,000 feet.

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Credit: Boeing
The laser drone

The president of Boeing Phantom Works recently said the company’s prototype Phantom Eye drone could be set up to fly solid-state lasers for high-altitude sensing and communications missions. Phantom Eye is a liquid hydrogen-fueled, high-altitude and long-endurance unmanned aircraft.

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Credit: Reuters
The drone market

Chart showing the number of companies granted FAA drone exemptions and the drone/drone equipment makers they bought from.

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Credit: Reuters/Thomas Peters
A shoe-in

A drone picks up a pair of shoes during a presentation by the Crocs footwear company.