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Location: UFOUpDatesList.Com > 2007 > Oct > Oct 9

Boston's Own Robot-Plane Skunk Works

From: UFO UpDates - Toronto <ufoupdates.nul>
Date: Tue, 09 Oct 2007 10:06:30 -0400
Archived: Tue, 09 Oct 2007 10:06:30 -0400
Subject: Boston's Own Robot-Plane Skunk Works

Source: Xconomy.Com - Cambridge, Massachusets, USA



A Visit To Boston's Own Robot-Plane Skunk Works
Wade Roush

Unbeknownst to the lunch crowds who fill the streets around the
Cambridge Marriott every weekday, Kendall Square has its very
own Area 51: a mini-aircraft hangar on the fourteenth floor of
One Broadway. Part of the newly opened R&D outpost of Manassas,
VA-based Aurora Flight Sciences, the space is used to test
unpiloted machines such as a UFO-shaped surveillance craft that
can take off and land vertically, a fold-up airplane designed to
fly over the plains of Mars, and a makeshift glider that uses
bat-like echolocation to avoid obstacles. Aurora engineers fly
the smallest models around the indoor mini-hangar and truck
larger prototypes out to nearby airfields such as Hanscom Air
Force Base.

I toured the facility last Thursday courtesy of an old high
school friend, Tim Dawson-Townsend, who located me recently
after seeing my stories in Xconomy. Tim was at MIT when I was at
Harvard, then joined the Air Force. Now he's a program manager
at Aurora, where he works on a range of defense-related projects
that run from the Excalibur, a vertical-takeoff attack plane
that doesn't care whether it flies right-side-up or upside-down,
to the UFO-like GoldenEye (okay, it's really shaped more like a
backyard barbeque or Oscar the Grouch's trash can from Sesame
Street than a UFO).

Dawson-Townsend says Aurora is a great place to work because,
while it has a profitable business building aerostructures such
as the carbon-composite fuselage for Northrop Grumman's Global
Hawk unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), the company also has a
strong R&D sensibility, having started out building high-
altitude scientific craft for NASA. "Everybody and his brother
is building a UAV these days," Dawson-Townsend says. But few
companies, in his view, bring Aurora's sense of experiment and
adventure to the industry.

Aurora CEO John Langford founded the company in 1989 after
several years managing MIT's Daedalus human-powered airplane
project. "John realized that if you put engines on these things,
we could do some interesting science," says Thomas Vaneck,
Aurora's vice president of research and development and the
leader of the Cambridge lab. The company worked with NASA
throughout the 1990s on the Perseus series of research UAVs,
which set world altitude records. But as NASA's research
interests changed, and especially as the conflict in Iraq got
underway, Aurora's focus shifted to defense, Vaneck told me. The
company acquired a former Northrop Grumman facility in
Bridgeport, WV, for manufacturing metal airplane parts, built an
adjacent facility for making carbon-composite parts, and won big
contracts developing components for the unmanned Global Hawk as
well as the E2-C Hawkeye early-warning aircraft and the EA-6B
Prowler electronic-warfare plane.

UAVs such as General Atomics' famous MQ-1 Predator have
performed so well in surveillance, targeting, and attack roles
in Iraq that the military services want manufacturers to explore
more ways such craft can assist units in the field, Vaneck says.
"Our customers are demanding that these technologies do a lot
more," he says. And that's what led the company to set up an R&D
center in Cambridge, where engineers can easily collaborate with
members of MIT's world-renowned Aero/Astro department. For
example, Aurora is working with MIT's Jonathan How to explore
software algorithms for planning and coordinating the action of
fleets of UAVs in real time. (Xconomy last spoke with How about
MIT's entry in the DARPA Urban Challenge robot car competition,
which also benefits from his work on planning algorithms.)
"Through osmosis, we'll be able to extract interesting
technologies and put them into the company's products," says

One fascinating product is the GoldenEye, which is essentially a
flying ducted fan that generates enough lift to carry a small
payload such as an optical/infrared camera and a laser
designator (used to "light up" targets that can then be
destroyed by missiles). On the ground, the GoldenEye perches on
four legs. When powered up, it leaps from the ground like a
helicopter, then tilts forward and flies with the help of two
stubby wings. (Click here to see a video of the GoldenEye in

The craft operates completely autonomously, with operators
specifying only where it should go. It's small enough that
soldiers could fit two on the back of an SUV. "If you're a
company commander, you don't have actual control over a
Predator" or other existing military UAV, Dawson-Townsend
explains. The Air Force controls all craft that fly over 3,000
feet=97in fact, Predators in Iraq are usually controlled via
satellite by pilots based in Las Vegas, NV, of all places. The
GoldenEye, by contrast, would fly low, under the control of
soldiers who might need it to peek over a hill or locate

The conflict in Iraq makes money for brand-new UAV systems
scarce, but Vaneck says that Aurora has been invited to show off
the GoldenEye at a military technology demonstration scheduled
for the spring. There, it hopes to win a contract that would
allow it to complete development and testing of the device,
build more demonstration units, and eventually go into
production. "We think we can save lives by having this sort of
asset in the conflict," says Vaneck.

A scaled-down, Kevlar-skinned version of the GoldenEye is one of
several craft currently inhabiting Aurora's 14th-floor mini-
hangar. Dawson-Townsend also showed me a scale model of the Mars
Flyer, which is designed to unfold from a rocket's nose cone as
it parachutes into the Martian atmosphere. NASA has put plans
for an airborne Mars mission on hold=97but if the mission is ever
revived, Aurora's plane might be the one cruising over Olympus
Mons or the Valles Marineris.

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