What Local Drones Can Do for You (and Lady Gaga) - Voice of San Diego


What Local Drones Can Do for You (and Lady Gaga)

Unmanned systems created in Southern California do everything from inspect crops, study squid and adorn a certain pop star.

If you think drones are mostly unmanned planes deployed by the military, or small camera-equipped devices controlled by hobbyists at the local park, consider this: Lady Gaga was technically wearing a drone when she hovered above the ground at an album release party.

Strap in and we’ll go over some of the unmanned systems you may see in the air or underwater. All of the drones I’ve included here have a Southern California connection. In fact, all but one has a direct tie to a San Diego-area company.

Let’s start with the biggest of the bunch. That’d be Northrup Grumman’s Global Hawk.

Image via Northrop Grumman
Image via Northrop Grumman

It’s a 16-ton unmanned aircraft that can track both people and objects for 32 hours straight. It’s capable of flying up to 60,000 feet – twice as high as a commercial plane.

The Global Hawk’s surveillance deployments in Iraq, Afghanistan and Libya have gotten the most attention but the feds have also used them for naval searches and climate monitoring.

Then there’s the drone that’s gotten the most press. This is General Atomics Aeronautical Systems’ Predator:

Image via General Atomics Aeronautical Systems
Image via General Atomics Aeronautical Systems

It can carry two Hellfire missiles that can penetrate armor. These roughly 1,000-pound systems are the Central Intelligence Agency’s weapon of choice in its covert strike program, an effort that began after the Sept. 11 attacks.

The military isn’t the only force using drones. This fall, pop megastar Lady Gaga donned – er, stepped into – this flying dress at her “Artpop” album release party.

Image via Shutterstock
Image via Shutterstock

The fashion statement, also known as Volantis, was actually a drone. And Carlsbad drone developer Gus Calderon, a longtime commercial pilot, helped build it and even manned the controls at Gaga’s launch party. Calderon relied on thrust force from propellers and batteries to briefly lift Gaga 70 inches off the ground.

Gaga dress aside, most drones are designed mostly with consumers and hobbyists in mind.

Take 3D Robotics’ Aero, which looks like a mini-airplane:

Photo by Sam Hodgson
Photo by Sam Hodgson

Its fixed wings allow for up to 40 minutes of flight. Once outfitted with a camera, footage from these drones can be used to make a detailed map or to monitor crops. (The latter is expected to be among the most common uses of unmanned systems once the FAA sets regulations for commercial drones.)

Military and law enforcement agencies around the world use smaller drones too.

Many have tried out the 3-pound Aeryon Scout, which is distributed by Datron World Communications in Vista:

Image via Datron World Communications
Image via Datron World Communications

The Scout is relatively quiet and Aeryon says it can handle inclement weather better than many other unmanned systems, making it ideal for SWAT teams and military surveillance. The University of Alaska also recently got the OK to start using them to seek out and count animal populations, including reindeer and bears, as part of the FAA’s test sites program.

Drones can also dive underwater and drive on land.

Point Loma-based SeaBotix produces several types of underwater unmanned systems, like this one:

Image via SeaBotix
Image via SeaBotix

Their flagship product is the SeaBotix vLBV300, a roughly 40-pound remotely operated vehicle usually outfitted with a camera and sonar that can record underwater and retrieve objects.

Mark Wash, a sales engineer for SeaBotix, said the U.S. military and its allies make up the majority of his company’s business. These entities often use such drones to inspect ship hulls and search for people who have drowned.  Local university researchers have also used a similar system to study squid in La Jolla Canyon.

Other local companies, including 5D Robotics in Carlsbad and Vision Robotics in San Diego, also work on unmanned ground drones increasingly used by farmers and militaries.

Not all drones look like robots. One that made the cover of Time magazine a few years back actually looks like a bird.

Image via AeroVironment
Image via AeroVironment

AeroVironment, a company in the Los Angeles area, received a contract from the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency in 2006 to develop an unmanned system small enough to fly through an open window. A few years later, AeroVironment responded with the camera-toting Nano Hummingbird, a drone that weighs less than an AA battery. Like its animal namesake, the Nano Hummingbird hovers and flies, flapping its wings 20 to 40 times a second.

You can’t buy this bird, though. An AeroVironment spokesman said the company isn’t selling Nano Hummingbirds to consumers but learned a lot developing them.

This is part of our quest digging into the drone industry in San Diego. Check out the previous story – San Diego’s Undercover Drone Companies Fight the Feds – and the next in our series – Drone-Makers Want to Build Household Products – But Not a Household Name.

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