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28 July 2016 · 3 min read

What do amazon drones and BMX bikes have in common?

How civilian technologies are leading the defence industry

What do Amazon drones and BMX bikes have in common? The answer – the use of cutting edge ‘sense and avoidance’ technology, developed by the civil aerospace industry. Traditionally in the A&D sector, pioneering technologies were developed by the defence industry (funded at least in part by Government customers) and then used in the civil aerospace industry. However, as Governments looks to rein their spending, companies are developing new technologies for civil applications, which will then in time be used in the military sphere. The use of ‘sense and avoid’ technology by Amazon to step up its drone tests, and by British BMX cyclists in preparation for next week’s Olympics are timely examples of this.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) have been flown regularly by the military during the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns. However, the military had air supremacy (complete control of the air space) during both these conflicts, with no civilian aircraft in the area and UAV pilots had constant contact with their aircraft. Therefore the military never had to push for the development of a UAV that could autonomously sense and avoid obstacles.

This limitation is what is currently hindering widespread integration of UAVs into civilian airspace. Honeywell and General Atomic have been working with NASA to develop the required technology which is now undergoing testing.

This week Amazon announced that it will step up its drone tests in UK airspace after the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) granted it permission to test aerial vehicles without several of the rules that typically bind UAV pilots. Amazon’s drones will operate without a pilot having direct line of sight and pilots will be able operate more than one vehicle at once, in order to test the ‘sense and avoid’ technology. This takes Amazon another step closer to realizing its dream of having a fleet of drones that can deliver small packages to customers within thirty minutes of them ordering.

Next week, Great Britain’s BMX cyclists will be haring around the muddy tracks of Rio di Janeiro in pursuit of Olympic glory.  BAE Systems is UK Sport’s official research and innovation partner. It has worked in conjunction with British Cycling to adapt UAV ‘sense and avoid’ technology to help the BMX cyclists understand their optimal trajectory both on the ground and in the air. Cutting edge optical sensor technology interacts with miniature LEDS affixed to the bikes. The information is then relayed to a specifically designed app, giving riders and coaches a real time read out of performance, enabling them to identify where they can make British Cycling’s much talked about ‘marginal gains’.

Military UAVs will undoubtedly benefit from this technology in the future, but only once it has become more cost effective. Defence technology having to sometimes take the lead from civil industries is an inevitable consequence of the world becoming more technologically advanced. This should not be seen as a negative for the defence industry though. It can reap the rewards of pioneers like Amazon whilst focusing on developing defence technologies that will never be used in the civilian environment, for example weapons systems.

As you watch the Olympics next week, give a thought to the A&D engineers.

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