Freefly gets on Blue sUAS, shows off hybrid drone @AUVSI XPONENTIAL

Freefly gets on Blue sUAS, shows off hybrid drone @AUVSI XPONENTIAL

Freefly systems has news – and cause to celebrate.

The company’s Alta X drone platform has been elevated to a very desirable status.

“Our Alta X was approved for the Defense Innovation Unit’s Blue sUAS list, which is huge for us,” says Freefly Chief Technical Officer Max Tubman. The ‘list’ is a small collection of drones that have been vetted for cybersecurity and components to ensure it meets the standards of the federal National Defense Authorization Act. It’s also seen as kind of an approved list of drones for purchase by the Department of Defense and many federal agencies using federal dollars for their spend.

“Going through the DIU process, basically has a third party validate all of your claims,” says Tubman. “They look at your supply chain, build material, operations, make sure your drones are secure from a cybersecurity standpoint. It allows federal agencies and private companies to know they’re buying an approved drone. And certain government agencies require that.”

Tubman says the company has already seen a significant boost in sales. What’s more, the company’s Astro drone is in the queue for the next round of potential approvals.

“It’s a big boon, yes. There are certain federal agencies that have just been waiting to replace fleets of aircraft so it will unlock at lot for them.”

That’s Tubman below, looking justifiably happy beside the Astro.


Hybrid en route


While the Blue sUAS news is big for Freefly, there’s some other big news in the wings. A new drone was on the floor, and it’s a marked departure from previous Freefly offerings. It’s a hybrid drone, using a gas-powered engine to generate power. And that’s a big deal.

“It has a four kilowatt, fuel-injected engine which allows you to fly for much longer time. We’re looking at LiDar payloads in the 10-12 pound range and flight times of 2-1/2 hours while remaining under 55 pounds.”

That’s something. Here’s a look at the Hybrid Hawk, which will likely be on the market by the end of the year.



The hybrid advantage


If you follow drones, you’ll know that the flight time for that kind of payload is pretty awesome. But what’s the secret sauce? The answer is that while lithium polymer batteries are great – they’re no match for the energy-to-weight ratio of gasoline (and this is actually a multi-fuel machine). It’s even better and more easy to deploy, says Tubman, than hydrogen fuel cell machines.

“It’s much easier and accessible than a hydrogen fuel cell,” says Tubman. “Hydrogen has a high energy density but a low power density, whereas gasoline has both a high energy density and high power density compared to a fuel cell.”


A Canadian Connection


While Freefly is a US company, there was a collaboration with a Canadian company to get this machine made. The motor/generator combo was designed and fabricated by Pegasus Aeronautics, a company based in Waterloo, Ontario. Two of the Pegasus guys are in the photo above, with one holding the engine. Here’s a closer look at that powerplant.




Obviously, this kind of range has its advantages for inspection, surveillance and more. But it’s also hugely advantageous in remote regions where operators might not have access to power. What’s more convenient? Packing in thousands of dollars worth of charged batteries for a major job, or taking in a jerry can of gasoline?

“Having to haul batteries out into the field is basically a non-starter for a lot of these applications,” says Pegasus CEO and founder Matt McRoberts. “The ability to refuel a UAV and put it in the air and have it do useful work is important.”

And, for the geeks among us, here’s more about the advantage.

“The intention is that we take gasoline and use that as an energy storage method, which we can then transform to electricity,” he says. “As a consequence of gasoline having 40-50 times the gravimetric energy density as LiPo batteries, these types of systems can stay in the air much longer, up to eight to 12 times as long, depending on the application.” 

Cool. So why aren’t we seeing tons of drones using gasoline to create electricity and extend flight times? Well, there are others – but not that many. And the answer, quite simply, is that extracting that efficiency to its fullest potential is no easy task.

“The process of turning gasoline into useful energy is very challenging across the board,” says McRoberts. “We had to develop in-house fuel injection systems, power management systems that work in concert with one another in order to make a system that is well-optimised, efficient and – most important – easy to use.”

What’s more, the Hybrid Hawk has software designed for BVLOS flight, including continuous monitoring of telemetry, motor health, power output and more. You can even start the engine remotely.

The motor’s spec sheet reveals that it’s a two-stroke, liquid-cooled cylinder. Other specs include:

  • Four kilowatt power output
  • Operational voltage from 24 thru 50V
  • CAN, Serial, redundant PWM signals interface protocols
  • Automatic throttle control
  • Operation times before overhaul: 200 hours
  • Ingress Protection: Up to IP67

There’s more there, too, if you read the fine print. Kudos to the engineers at Pegasus for pulling this together. It’s certainly no small task to build something like this.


InDro’s Take


We can certainly envision the use-case scenarios for a UAS like this. The range and payload capacities open up a very wide door, particularly in remote and harsh environments where charging is not available, or the job is a big one. There’s a lot more efficiency in sending a drone up once for a large photogrammetry/data acquisition project, rather than doing it in bits and pieces. We also see great potential for deliveries beyond the range of most LiPo powered drones. And even on a very long delivery, it’s a simple task for people at the other end to refuel with standard gasoline (mixed with oil, of course), rather than ensuring charged batteries are awaiting for the return trip.

We look forward to seeing this drone get out of the gate, into production, and into real-world applications.

Steerable drone/cargo chutes from AVSS gain interest @AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL

Steerable drone/cargo chutes from AVSS gain interest @AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL

A Canadian company, well-known for its drone parachute systems, has a new and innovative product. It’s a steerable parachute that can drop cargo – or even a drone with a technical malfunction – where you want it to go.

The company is called AVSS (Aerial Vehicle Safety Solutions) and it was founded in 2017.

“AVSS is a parachute recovery system. We build parachutes for DJI products as well as special integrations. We are a spring-based product, we don’t use a pyrotechnic solution,” explains Mariah Murray, VP of Operations with AVSS.

The pod-like systems are built to integrate with more expensive DJI drones, as well as some other custom integrations. You can see a pod integrated on the top of this DJI industrial drone.

Steerable Drone

How does it work?


Well, there’s a fair bit of technology packed into the standard, non-steerable chutes (we’ll get to steerable in a moment). Each one is custom-tuned to know when something has gone wrong with a specific drone.

According to AVSS CEO Josh Ogden, the chutes deploy if a drone “breaches certain thresholds of the drone’s regular flight parameters.” For example, if the drone suddenly rolls or pitches at angles exceeding what the drone is capable of in normal flight, algorithms trigger the system to deploy. A minute time-delay is built-in to ensure it’s a genuine problem and not a brief anomaly.

“Some time delays to prevent false deployment,” says Ogden, adding that AVSS generally works in concert with drone manufacturers in order to “know what failure looks like.”

The systems are not inexpensive – but nor are the drones they’re designed for. For DJI’s M300, a system is $3600 and $1900 for the Mavic 3 (though there are lower price points.) But, wow, at the moment you need it you’ll be happy the system is there.

“As a parachute company, we’re there to exist, but no one needs to know we exist,” says Ogden. “It’s like an airbag in your car – you only know when your drone has failed.”


Mavic Pro

Steerable chutes


AVSS also recently launched its latest product, a steerable chute that can be used for cargo or the salvation of an errant drone. It’s called the Parachute Precision Guidance System, or PPGS.

With cargo, you pre-program the GPS coordinates where you want the package to land. You drop it as close to the desired landing location as possible, and servos adjust the chute’s control lines during descent.

“We have servos pulling the lines, so it’s like a paraglider,” says Ogden. The software is thinking “this is home point, I need to get there. It’s trying to navigate.”

And navigate it does. AVSS says the guided drops will consistently land within a few metres of the target. Here’s a look at that steerable chute package, along with a remote with a giant red button if you need to manually deploy.

Ogden says it’s intended for urgent missions.

“This is military re-supply, I’ve got to get ammo to a front line, or blood to someone who is about to die. Critical missions.”


Ontario trials


The system has also been tested in northern Ontario, and there’s an InDro Robotics angle. We supplied a Wayfinder heavy-lift drone to drop cargo with a steerable chute to a First Nations community in Ear Falls.

“Looking at using drones to deliver critial supplies to the First Nations community,” says Ogden. “This is opening up another critical medial delivery to those communities. Some existing drone delivery companies require really expensive infrastructure. That’s not affordable. This basically enables life-saving, mission critical items.”

Steerable Drones

Real world testing


These chute systems go through an arduous testing phase before they’re released to the public. AVSS parachutes meet the rigid ASTM F3322 standards, and the company is close to having integrations for 10 different drones completed. It tests at the UAS NUAIR testing site. And yes, they have to do a lot of deployments.

“We have to crash the drone at NUAIR over 45 times,” says Ogden. “There’s a new standard coming, and then I think we have to crash 65 times. “

Some 100 units of the steerable chute have been purchased by the Canadian Armed Forces. And AVSS is already working plans for using steerable chutes for drones – with programming to avoid landing, for example, on a busy highway.

“We envision, our future of drone parachutes, is guided parachutes that can land the drone in a safe spot,” says Ogden. “When my drone fails, I want to ensure that it doesn’t drift into traffic. Guided parachutes are the future of drone parachutes, especially for drone delivery and urban missions.”

FYI that’s Josh on the left, Mariah on the right.


Steerable Drone

InDro’s Take


We’re big fans of AVSS. The company identified a gap in the marketplace and developed a well-engineered solution. The steerable chutes are already finding a market, and will ensure that critical goods get where they’re needed, when they’re needed, minimizing the risk of drift or entanglement with trees or other structures. Smart. We also really like the concept of a steerable chute that will ensure a drone will land somewhere safe.

We look forward to seeing where AVSS goes from here.


New heavy-lift autogyro grabs attention @AUVSI

New heavy-lift autogyro grabs attention @AUVSI

We had barely got onto the XPONENTIAL trade floor in Orlando before something really caught our attention. Part of the reason was because it was big. But it was also very different.

It’s an entirely new type of VTOL drone that uses an autogyro-type system for lift. The drone is called ATLIS, and it’s billed as a long-range, heavy lift VTOL cargo UAV. It’s built by a Florida company called Aergility, which has previously successfully tested scale models of this design.

“We flew our first 1:4 scale model about four years ago,” says Brian Vander Mey, Aergility’s Director of Sales and Marketing. “Then we built a 30 per cent scale model, and this is the debut of our full-scale model. This is our third generation.”

Take a look at this thing. It’s quite something:

VTOL cargo UAV

The Aergility ATLIS has a claimed range of 300 miles (480 km) with a payload of 500 pounds (227 kg). The company says it’s been designed for dropping critical supplies to disaster areas, hostile environments, and more.

“We want to be in places that have limited, damaged infrastructure or uavailable infrastructure,” says Brian Vander Mey, Aergility’s Director of Sales and Marketing.

“That would be anything from 400,000 villages in Africa, to oil platforms, to military applications where it costs $1,000 per litre to deliver water into the field.”


A VTOL with autogyro


This drone has quite an unusual design. Forward thrust is carried out by a multi-fuel turboprop engine. You can get a closer look at the front end here:

Cargo Drone

The back end, meanwhile, opens up much like a military cargo aircraft. This enables rapid loading and unloading, which is a major factor in a critical situation.

Cargo Drone

Takeoff, transition, autogyro


The ATLIS features a total of seven propellors and motors. The fuel engine is the one you saw previously, and is responsible for thrust in forward flight. In addition, ATLIS has six other motors that function both for vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), like a quadcopter.

But during the transition to forward flight, the power to those VTOL rotors is gradually decreased to zero. Airflow starts to move those props of its own accord – meaning they begin to auto-rotate simply due to forward motion through air. Once they reach a sufficient speed, they provide lift just like a wing.

But these motors can also be controlled – slowed down on one side or the other (or front to back) by regenerative braking. The power generated during that braking process is transferred to the rotors on the opposite side of the aircraft, increasing their speed. Doing this gives the pilot authority over yaw, pitch and roll.

“So if you want to bank, you add power to rotors on one side by generating and drawing power from rotors on the opposite side,” says Vander Mey. “The net is that zero power has been used.

“The aircraft is remarkably simple. There are no ailerons, it’s just rotors.”

Here’s a better explanation, followed by a shot of one of those combination VTOL/autogyro rotors.


ATLIS Cargo Drone

Getting ready for flight


The ATLIS on display has not yet flown. But it’s not a mockup (something that occasionally plagues trade shows). The carbon fuselage is the real deal, but final integration of components has not yet been done. The company has successfully flown a 1:3 scale version, and will take ATLIS to the air by the end of summer.

“There’s going to be an extensive certification process. The first thing is to get the aircraft in good shape and ready for production,” says Vander Mey. “So we are going to be doing our initial flight testing for this aircraft in late summer, and we’re targeting having production units available 18-24 months from now.”

Cargo Drone

Scale model in flight


As mentioned, Aergility has previously produced scale models of this drone. You’ll see in this video that roll, pitch and yaw have all been achieved despite no airelons. Of course, multi-rotors do this as well – but standard quadcopters continuously supply power to all rotors. The ATLIS does not, once in full forward flight. And when inputs are required, it puts the brakes on some rotors, generating the power required to speed up opposing rotors.

This strikes us as new. Aergility appears to have been successful with its prototype:

InDro’s Take


This unusual design caught our eye. If Aergility can successfully get its full-scale version through certification, it will certainly find a market. The ability to move 500 pounds of cargo 300 miles in a VTOL-style aircraft is very significant, and we can foresee many humanitarian and emergency use-cases, as well as just routine deliveries to remote communities.

We’re also intrigued by the autogyro aspect, and the ability to change autogyro speeds for flight inputs (what Aergility calls “Managed Autorotation Technology” or MAT). ATLIS does not require tilting motors or variable pitch rotors; we’d love to see this sytem in action.

We wish Aergility the best in test flights, certification, and bringing this product to market. A drone like this, if successful, will certainly fill a void.



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Indro Robotics at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL show

Indro Robotics at AUVSI’s XPONENTIAL show

Welcome to the Greatest Show on Earth, or at least the biggest when it comes to drones and robots.

The Association for Uncrewed Vehicles Systems International (AUVSI) is back with a full-scale, in-person XPONENTIAL show for the first time since the global pandemic. With members in more than 60 countries – and an ever-increasing number of companies offering products – this is considered the event to attend. The trade floor, when it opens April 26, will showcase products from the world’s largest manufacturers…right through to some of the smallest.

Only exhibitors were allowed in today, setting up their displays. You can get a tiny glimpse of the floor in the background in the following shot. And that woman with the yellow tie? She means business. No one on the floor without an exhibitor’s pass. Don’t even ask.


As usual, there were some smaller educational seminars and panels on a day when a lot of people were still registering. To give you a sense of scale, check out how large the registration area is. Given that it takes only about a minute to get your pass, maximum, this is massive.




We took in a few sessions today, just to get warmed up for the main event. A couple of them had some pretty interesting little nuggets.

For example, there was a panel called “When does a vehicle become the driver?” which raised some intriguing points we hadn’t considered. For example, disability activists are keen to have a voice at the table for autonomous vehicles due to the obvious advantages they will provide for those unable to drive a regular car. Wiley Deck, the VP of Government Affairs and Public Policy with the autonomous trucking firm Plus, said he’s heard many with disabilities say “‘We want to be in at the front door, and we think we deserve that’.”

Makes sense. And, arguably, autonomous vehicles might be a boon for elderly people whose decision-making skills and reaction times have diminished with age. But when it comes to legislation, that raises another question.

“Fewer and fewer people will be human drivers,” said Kelly Bartlett, a Connected and Automated Vehicle Specialist with the Michigan Department of Transport (and a guy who thinks about laws a lot).

 “We’ve got to decide, who is that person? Maybe it’s a Level 4 or Level 5 (autonomous vehicle). Who is that person? Do they have to know traffic laws, for example?”

Interesting question, and one Barlett said will have to be tackled by legislators at some point in the future.


Autonomous trucking will take time


One of the other striking things from the panel, considering the capabilities of vehicles like those from Tesla, is that the world of autonomous long-haul trucking isn’t coming anytime soon.

If the route were a simple A-B, things would be easier. But the reality, said panelists, is that most of the millions of trucks hitting the road daily in the US have complex routes. They need to stop for fuel or, in the future, for charging. They need to cross states that have different laws. And, just as there are concerns with drones conflicting with traditional aviation, regulators and the public will need to be satisfied these vehicles are truly safer – and in all scenarios.

For example: What would happen if a front steering tire of an autonomous truck blew out at highway speeds? We don’t actually know yet, though at some point such tests will be carried out on tracks. Think of how many scenarios might be involved – how does an autonomous vehicle react to an oil slick? When being towed?

Lots to think about. Speaking of which, when do you predict autonomous trucks will be ubiquitous? Five years? Ten?

According to the panel, you’d be premature.

“It’s decades away,” said Wiley Deck. “If you’re entering the industry now, you’ll be able to retire as a trucker.”

There was also an amazing story about one of the first autonomous vehicle demonstrations, way back in 1925. Too long to go into here, but there’s a fascinating read here, if you’re inclined. It even involves Houdini.


Blue sUAS


You may have heard of Blue sUAS. It’s a list of drones that have been vetted by a Department of Defense branch called the Defense Innovation Unit to comply with the National Defense Authorization Act in the United States. You might think of them as an “approved” list of non-weaponised drones for use by the military, or those using federal funds. Drones using major components manufactured in China are excluded, including DJI. There are also fairly rigid cybersecurity hurdles the drones must pass.

But that has led to some confusion – and concern among organizations that cannot afford the vetted drones. Shelby Ochs, seen in the next photo, is the Program Manager, Autonomy, with the Defense Innovation Unit. They’re the folks that vetted the first list of Blue sUAS drones. At the moment, that list contains eight drones, listed here.



Problem is, when the Defense Innovation Unit first came out with its initial list of Blue sUAS, many people in government, law enforcement, and – albeit rarely – some commercial companies, believed these were the only drones they could purchase.

“People thought this was a prescriptive list,” says Ochs. “So there were a lot of agencies in the federal government who said: ‘If they’re good enough for the Department of Defense, they’re good enough for us, too.'”

That, in his opinion, was a mistake. And he emphasized the following point multiple times during his presentation. In fact, he said it at least three times:

“Any company can sell any drone to any organization, so long as it meets their administrative requirements.”

So that cleared things up. Also of note, Ochs says the Defense Innovation Unit has been looking at adding more drones to the list – and another 15 US-made drones are currently under consideration. He also predicts that average prices of US-made, Blue sUAS products will come down over time.

That’s it for now. Check in later, as we’ll be posting lots of cool content from XPONENTIAL.