Sunday, May 29, 2011

Voice controlled Aircraft - the next generation of aviation?

All of you may be quite familiar with voice recognition technology in computers, and may have even used them in dictating word documents and reports. But now this technology is increasingly being used to aid pilots in aircraft control , and thus , reducing their pilot workload.

The initial steps in this direction are being taken in Military aviation by companies like QinetiQ ( The same company which flew the Zephyr. See my earlier post ) in the UK.  Designed to alleviate the problem of pilots spending too much time looking inside the cockpit – a problem exacerbated by the advent of complex multi-function displays – QinetiQ's Direct Voice Input (DVI) system incorporates speech recognition technology to facilitate the direct voice control of avionics equipment using standard aircrew helmet microphones and intercom.

The system is speaker independent, meaning that it does not need to be trained to recognize a specific user, unlike your microsoft voice recognition software ( which you have to "train" for a few minutes , before it can accept voice commands from you). It gives aircrew the ability to control aircraft systems using voice commands and access information without removing their hands from the flight controls or being distracted from what’s happening outside the aircraft.

The system addresses the demands on pilots presented by an increasing amount of technology in modern aircraft cockpits. Too much of a pilot's time can be spent looking "head-in" rather than "head-out" during sorties due to the advent of multi-function displays with menu structures many tiers deep. You can see this image - the cockpit of the F-22 Raptor to get an idea of how difficult it is.

In a lot of cockpits, much of the information is buried in nested menus that require the pilot to select numerous buttons to get to the information he needs. Voice allows you to just ask for this information say " show fuel status”.

Much of the heads down activity is not to read information it is to enter commands such as radio frequencies selection, weapons targeting, transponder settings.
Additionally, flying a helicopter requires to have one hand on the collective and one on the joystick, reaching out to select buttons means taking your hands of the flight controls. Doing this at low level and in bad visibility can be dangerous.
QinetiQ's system means is particularly important for single pilot operations or where one pilot is flying and another is performing a tactical role.According to the company ,
"DVI has now amassed more than 30 hours of MOD-funded flight trials with command recognition rates in excess of 90 per cent for all users providing effective speech control of non-safety critical avionic functions. The trials have included both Chinook and Gazelle helicopters and involved aircrew from all three UK services

The Eurofighter Typhoon currently in service with the UK RAF employs a speaker-dependent system, i.e. it requires each pilot to create a template ( much similar to the Microsoft speech software mentioned earlier) . The system is not used for any safety critical or weapon critical tasks, such as weapon release or lowering of the undercarriage, but is used for a wide range of other cockpit functions. Voice commands are confirmed by visual and/or aural feedback. The system is seen as a major design feature in the reduction of pilot workload, and even allows the pilot to assign targets to himself with two simple voice commands or to any of his wing-men with only five commands. 

Though the Technology looks very optimistic, there are some hurdles which it may have to overcome to become a commercial reality ,atleast in Military aircraft. Studies with pilots flying the JAS-39 Gripen have shown the quality of voice recognition reduced at high speeds , especially when the G- Force increases. In a helicopter, the speed is not an issue, but the rotor "noise" is. the sound from the rotors can impair the recognition power of the software, unless corrective noise cancellation methods are employed. A recognition accuracy of over 95 % is required for safe flight.

As of now, scientists are using Voice control in airplane cockpits with a guarded approach, but yet, fully convinced of its future efficacy.Current research gives us the hope that this could be reality in civilian planes in lesser than 5 years.

IAF Chief views Pak FGFA T-50 test flight

The  heat is on. India is taking urgent measures to secure its already "troubled neighbourhood" ,as Home Minister P. Chidambaram put it.

The head of the Indian Air Force, Air Chief Marshal Pradeep Vasant Naik attended a flight demonstration of the newest Russian fighter aircraft, the Sukhoi T-50 (PKA FA) at Gromov Flight Research Institute at the city of Zhukovsky near Moscow. The demonstration also included a flight of the modernized MiG-29UPG, an upgraded version destined for the Indian Air Force, to introduce an avionics suite common with the MiG29K/KUB carrier-based fighters India is buying for its aircraft carriers. 

The Prototype of the Pak T-50 FGFA 

The Indian Air Force commander was hosted by Mikhail Pogosyan, President of the United Aircraft Corporation, General Director of Sukhoi and RSK MiG, and representatives of the Russian arms export conglomerate Rosoboronexport.

India and Russia are cooperating in the development of a 5th generation fighter under the ‘Fifth Generation Fighter Aircraft (FGFA) program, to be based on the T-50, to be the largest cooperative project undertaken by the two countries. The cooperation agreement was signed on 18 October 2007 in Moscow and reiterated in December 2010, during the visit of Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to India. Under the FGFA program, Rosoboronexport company, Hindustan Aeronautics Limited (HAL) and Sukhoi signed the development agreement, covering the design, development, and necessary production engineering preparing for manufacturing of the aircraft in both countries.

The modernized MiG-29UPG avionics suite selected for the indian upgrade includes a unique collection of systems provided by Russian, Indian French and probably Israeli suppliers, enabling the new aircraft to integrate with the Indian air defense command and control network and operate specific weapon systems. The Indian avionics suppliers mentioned by the official announcement include HAL and Bharat Electronics Ltd. Names of the French suppliers or identity of Russian or Israeli companies was not available.  Delivery of the first upgraded aircraft to the customer in 2011.
The visit was first high level interaction between Russian and Indian officials after Russia lost the race for the IAF’s Medium Multi-Role Combat Aircraft (MMRCA) last month, with its Mig-35 which did not meet the Indian Air Force`s 643 specifications.
The Pak T-50 FGFA is seen as an attempt to radically change the aerial warfare metrics in India`s favour, with its aggressive stealth and avionics capabilities, which lead many to compare it as the Asian version of the F-22 raptor.

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Housefly inspired flying machines a.k.a Biomimetics- Part 2

The MFI-insect tries to emulate its biological counterparts through an unconventional approach not followed with other robots of its class ( The MFI-insect is classified as a robot due to the design principles being undertaken ,which are more suitable for robots than aircraft in general)

1) Power SourceBimorph piezoelectric actuator (mass 11 mg) develops 400 W/kg at 250 Hz.
2) WingsCarbon fiber reinforced wing has mass less than 0.3 milligrams, and inertia of 10 mg-   mm^2.

The MFI project in UC-Berkeley is a highly unconventional one.... You may wonder why a housefly-mimicking robot may be needed , but in case you did`nt know ; this project is being funded by the DARPA.

We really do not know for sure what the MFI developers have in mind, but possible applications, may include:

1) Spying/Surveillance : The obvious. the MFI can penetrate areas where conventional intelligence gathering techniques dont work much. Imagine sending these "flies" into crevices, cracks and into closed rooms where potential adversaries might be communicating.... This cute lil` thing can record or play you live streaming audio/video. Easy , isn`t it? All that the "adversaries" might be able to see is a couple of innocent looking flies in search of food.............All the while you are seeing them on your laptop as a live feed... ;-)

2) Instrumentation,Research : The usual science thing... small, highly mobile devices are greatly sought after in scientific research and the MFI is no exception. Using the right kind of on-board sensors and instruments , the MFI can sense minute changes in temperature,pressure, air quality etc., especially so in hazardous/poisonous environments where people can`t work in.

But again, System integration of these  measuring devices with the core flight components of the MFI can prove to be a challenge.Also, these instruments must be able to be accurate even in the presence of a constant vibration from the MFI "wings", which flutter at a remarkable frequency to stay airborne.
Nevertheless, things will hopefully materialize in the future.

3) Combat/Attack Scenarios : Okay, so much for the R & D part , but this may look right out of a Hollywood movie... In due course of time the meek looking MFI can be used for actual attack capabilities. Its real power though, lies not in the firepower but in its ability to stay undetected.

I vaguely remember reading somewhere that these kind of robots might as well be equipped with a payload of deadly poison in small quantities... Imitating the sting of a mosquito on the skin of the target, the payload is released in the bloodstream.A perfect recipe for taking the life outta someone without him actually knowing what happened.

This may look far fetched to some, but to me ; its a very distinct possibility . Advances in microelectronics  have rendered this more plausible than ever before.

The bottom line :

All said and done, the reality is a bit more rudimentary. In my opinion, the greatest challenge lies in developing a superior, lightweight, stable and rugged control mechanism for this kind of a robot. Remember how difficult it is to catch a fly? To mimick this feat of the fly, the MFI needs some really fast data processing units and tight sensor integration ,if it were to achieve superior mobility. 

Hereon, the MFI project becomes more of a software challenge , rather than a hardware one. If this were to be addressed satisfactorily, things could get pretty interesting.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Housefly inspired flying machines a.k.a Biomimetics- Part 1

There I am... back from the shady examination halls of the university to the welcome effulgence of the blog airspace...and if you thought AirborneGeeks was lost , the answer is NO :-). Just that we hit an air pocket and are teetering back to normalcy after a bout with turbulence :-).

So the thing which interested me for the past few days was biomimetic flight research of flies ......(yes...houseflies ).

For starters, biomimetics the science of imitating nature`s solution to various problems and apply them to engineering.Wikipedia defines it as "the application of biological methods and systems found in nature to the study and design of engineering systems and modern technology".Nature has developed a formidable technology of its own and this has been "imitated" by scientists to design new products.The most notable example being the "Velcro strap" you find in sandals,bags etc.It was in fact invented by a Swiss Engineer after noticing how the hooks of the plant burrs stuck in the fur of his dog.

On the whole,biomimetics is something like reverse-engineering nature`s mechanism.However, In this case, scientists are investigating as to how a fly stays up in the air , by analyzing the amount of power it needs to do so, and the wings it uses to carry out its job.

       But why the fly.. of all insects? The primary reason lies in its amazing efficiency and flight control.the power to weight ratio of its muscles is astoundingly high, and the non-steady state aerodynamics give it more lift than what an aircraft can normally expect. 
                         Physical specifications apart, the greatest capability of the fly lies in its agility and unrivaled control over its flight , even more than other insects ( To understand this.. try to recollect the last time you succeeded in swatting a fly with your bare hands....difficult huh?).Its rapid change of direction, altitude and speed make the man made airplanes practically look like snails in comparison :-).The reason is the tight integration of  sensory apparatus in the fly`s body , combined with a lightening fast control system and data processing capacity.This is the biggest challenge.

So here`s  the thing - design a miniature flying machine that  does exactly this, except that its under our control this time.
Weighing only 0.1 gram , and having wings which exactly mimic the fly in its frequency of beating ( about 150 flaps/sec) the electro-mechanical contraption has been designed at the University of California -Berkeley.called as the micromechanical flying insect (MFI) The first powered flight has been successful,but there are still many limitations it needs to overcome before being fully functional  ( like engage in a live combat with those flies in your kitchen :-D  ). More about that in my next post..