Drone Makes Autonomous Aerial Ship-to-ship Delivery For The First Time Ever

The Silicon Valley-based drone delivery company Volansi completed the first-ever completely autonomous maritime drone delivery demonstration with the Navy and Coast Guard on July 18 near Key West, Florida, Will Roper, Volansi CEO, told Avionics International.

Drone manufacturer Volansi has announced it has completed the first-ever autonomous ship-to-ship drone deliveries. In the demonstration, two vertical takeoff and landing-capable unmanned aircraft made three successful deliveries between a U.S. Navy ship and a U.S. Coast Guard vessel off the coast of Key West, Florida, marking a milestone in the Navy’s recent push for new unmanned logistics concepts to support its fleets.

The demonstrations, which were publicly disclosed on Aug. 2, consisted of three flights of the company’s VOLY 10 and 20 Series unmanned aircraft and were completed 20 nautical miles offshore. Two of the flights used the VOLY 10 aircraft which is 7 feet long with a 9-foot wingspan and a 10-pound maximum payload weight.

During the exercise, the VOLY 10 had a 5-pound payload and completed a 15 nautical mile trip from a Navy ship to the Coast Guard Cutter William Trump and back to the naval ship. The drone did not land on the cutter to simulate a situation where a landing was impossible.

“The Coast Guard didn’t want us to actually land on the ship because it’s a very small ship and they wanted to see if we were able to come very low, hover over the ship, and drop the package,” Roper said. “So control our descent, hit a close distance but like just above the height of a human, so you know you wouldn’t hit the person, but you weren’t dropping the payload from too high and they cared about that thinking of like maybe a shift in distress like a yacht or something that there wouldn’t be cleared to land on.”

The VOLY 10 was able to take off from the helicopter pad of the naval ship and used a mission computer to plan its trip. In the mission computer, the operator can tell the drone where to take off and land from, to hover, or to find a target area autonomously. Roper said they can train someone to operate the mission computer in about 20 minutes. Once the mission is planned on the computer, “it’s as easy as hitting go.”

“We’re literally one click drone delivery or one-click drone intelligence, and the drone does all the rest,” Roper said. “It takes itself off, it senses the wind conditions, it moves away from the ship, it transitions from the vertical flight–our drones take off vertically and then they fly linearly like a traditional airplane–it transitions and flies the route that you asked it to fly, it finds the target ship, it brings itself in, hones in on it using its own internal sensors, and in our case, does the kiss and go drop off of the payload and then returns to the original ship. There’s not a single drone operator involved, in fact, you can cut comms to our mission tablet and the mission will still complete.”

Volansi’s drones can land by using GPS or sensors on the aircraft.

“It would not be wise of us to require GPS to land on things and so we are also able to find targets to land on, or platforms to land on, and land on them using sensors that are integrated into the aircraft,” Roper said. “Thus far, we’ve done cameras and [Light Detection and Ranging] (LIDAR) and we’re investing in other sensor technology as well.”

The VOLY 20, which is Volansi’s larger drone with a 15-foot wingspan and 30-pound maximum payload weight, began its flight at the same naval ship and delivered its package to the Gotcha, a Coast Guard Panga, that was one nautical mile away. The VOLY 20 then landed back on the naval ship.

Roper emphasized that autonomy is really the important part of this demonstration, not the drone itself.

“The autonomy is the puppeteer the drone is the puppet, but it’s our puppeteers that are amazing and in our case, the puppeteer is software, its algorithms and sensing,” Roper said. “We don’t have anyone that’s making the decisions, but we have very reliable algorithms that do it.”

This autonomy is especially important in the context of the Navy because of the lack of space on ships. These drones do not require a team to operate like other solutions.

“For a ship that only has a finite number of bunk spaces…to ask there to be eight bunks available for a drone operation team, or in some cases, 25 for some of the Navy’s systems, that’s prohibitive,” Roper said. “So that tells you that certain ships cannot run logistics or ISR because you can’t support the drone team. Well, we just enabled that ship to have drone power. It’s one-click drone power enabled by autonomy. It’s the autonomy that’s the hero.”

While autonomy is not a new concept to the military, nothing they do is fully autonomous, Roper said.

“There’s a degree of autonomy in almost everything the military has but nothing that is truly autonomous,” Roper said. “There are people operating everything…So the demonstration we did is more autonomy than I’ve seen in 10 years of supporting military development.”

Roper said autonomy has to be demystified from some of the worries previously expressed by the Defense Department.

“I lived through all the AI stuff in the Department,” Roper said. “I’ve lived through the worries about autonomy, equating to this general artificial intelligence and not knowing what systems will do. I think the self-driving car industry has helped quite a bit to demystify that autonomous means that there’s not a person involved, it doesn’t mean something’s behaving in an erratic way or way that can’t be understood.”

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