By Jim McGrew, Program Manager for FLARES
Insitu’s new vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability, which was conceptualized and created by the collaboration of Insitu and Hood Technologies, caught the attention of a global audience during its public debut at Xponential last month. Since then, the industry has been buzzing with questions about the technology: What exactly is a Flying Launch and Recovery System (FLARES)? Why is our VTOL capability separate from the airframe of the UAV? Do the benefits outweigh the complexity of the system? Finally, and most importantly, how will it make a difference?
Today I plan to answer those questions, and continue the conversation about the possibilities this new technology brings to those in need of information delivery.
For those who are unfamiliar with this technology, FLARES is a multicopter-based launch and recovery system for unmanned aerial systems (UAS), providing our fixed-wing UAS with a true VTOL capability. The current system is still in development and is being tested using our ScanEagle UAS, but will have the ability to launch and recover other Insitu fixed-wing UAS as well.
There are currently many ScanEagle unmanned aircraft already operating around the globe with our customers and with Insitu’s ISR Services. Our goal was to develop FLARES as a drop-in launch and recovery option for all Insitu systems, with minimal modifications to the airframe or operational procedures so all our existing customers can immediately benefit from the small footprint and added capabilities of FLARES. By designing FLARES to be separate from the airframe, we are able to add these new capabilities without modifying or compromising the proven and reliable design of ScanEagle, which already has more than 890,000 operational flight hours. By keeping the FLARES multicopter at the launch site (and not attached to the UAS) customers continue to enjoy the efficiencies of high aspect ratio fixed-wing aircraft designs, with the added benefit of VTOL. This alleviates our aircraft from having to suffer the payload and endurance penalties associated with carrying additional motors, batteries and propellers on-board that are only used at the beginning and end of each flight.
The intention of FLARES is to provide customers with an additional option that will open up the possibility of gathering information from places where they were previously limited. The result is a platform that presents advantages that are so significant that they outweigh the complexities of the technology. The multicopter packs down into small cases, making the entire system compact enough to fit in the back of a pick-up truck. With its small footprint, FLARES is quick and easy to transport from site to site. That combined with its ability to launch and recover UAS above obstacles allows flight operations to occur in locations where traditional launch and recovery systems could not operate. This is particularly critical to supporting the growing commercial applications of Insitu’s UAS.
Historically, missions for long-endurance fixed-wing UAS have been limited by an inability to launch and recover from constricted spaces. Imagine the opportunities that would emerge for gathering information if it were possible to launch a long-endurance fixed-wing UAS, like our ScanEagle, from almost anywhere, including the rooftop of a building or a forest clearing? In a wildfire or other natural disaster, could actions for disaster management response be developed more rapidly? Would teams have the ability to provide protection to those in danger with a shorter response time? Could our monitoring services provided to assist critical infrastructure maintenance be delivered more reliably?
These questions are no longer hypothetical. FLARES shatters the barrier of mission limitations due to space constriction, without sacrificing the endurance and reliability of a fixed-wing UAS. This new domain of opportunity was born from the innovation of our team members at both Insitu and Hood Tech, a company with whom we have collaborated for many years. Our teams approached providing a sacrifice-free VTOL capability for ScanEagle and Insitu’s other long-endurance, fixed-wing UAVs from an entirely unique standpoint, creating a drone that launches another drone. This idea sounds outlandish, perhaps even impossible—until you see it work. To be truly innovative requires limitless minds that not only can imagine the impossible, but can follow through with these ideas and bring them to life. I believe this is precisely what our teams have done in creating FLARES.