An ambitious military project now underway in Brazil may turn the country into an important research, development and production hub for new technologies in unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), also known as drones. Designed for Air Force use, the aptly named Falcão, or Falcon, will be Brazil’s largest military UAV. If the project is successful, the aircraft will have a wingspan of 36 feet and minimum flight autonomy of 16 hours. Its foreseeable uses include marine surveillance, border operations, search and rescue missions, the fight against drug trafficking and environmental crimes, and security and monitoring for major events like the 2016 Olympic Games in Rio de Janeiro – the Falcão’s estimated date of completion. Roughly R$85 million have already been invested on the new drone so far by the Brazilian Innovation Agency (Finep), research institutes, and the aviation industry.
Development of the Falcão began in the late 2000s at Avibras, a Brazilian company based in the city of São José dos Campos, state of São Paulo, in partnership with the Aerospace Science and Technology Department (DCTA) of the Brazilian Air Force. The drone was equipped with navigation and control systems developed by another company in the same city: Flight Technologies, incubated by the Technological Institute of Aeronautics (ITA). The Falcão has been in production since February 2013 at Harpia Sistemas, a company created through an association between Embraer Defense & Security (the military arm of aircraft manufacturer Embraer) and AEL Sistemas, based in the city of Porto Alegre, state of Rio Grande do Sul. AEL is a subsidiary of Elbit Systems, one of Israel’s leading defense products manufacturers and supplier of the first drones ever used by the Brazilian Air Force (FAB) in 2010. In January 2013, Avibras also purchased a stake in Harpia. “Since then, we have been studying configurations that will meet the Armed Forces’ operating requirements for a UAV system that can perform intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance missions,” says Harpia CEO Rodrigo Fanton. The Falcão’s first prototype will be the initial template upon which the adaptations required by the Ministry of Defense will be built, including a set of sensors, a data communication system and a ground-based control station.
The aircraft will weigh about 1,750 pounds and will be able to transport more fuel and equipment than other drones in the same category, flying at altitudes of up to 16,400 feet. Inside the drone, instead of a pilot, there will be sensors, cameras and radar, among other equipment. Much of the Falcão’s structure was developed using Brazilian technology, such as the embedded electronics, control, and navigation systems. “It will be similar in size to the Super Tucano, Embraer’s tactical attack turboprop plane,” says Flavio Araripe d’Oliveira, UAV project coordinator at DCTA. “Midsize and large UAVs like the Falcão are controlled from the ground by technicians in ground stations equipped with computers and communication systems,” he says.
The Falcão uses another Brazilian UAV as a testing platform for its navigation and control systems: the Acauã, a 330-pound drone with a 16.4-foot wingspan, completed in 2010. The Acauã was jointly developed by the DCTA, Avibras, and research centers owned by the Brazilian Army (CTEx) and Navy (IPqM) (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 185). Dozens of experimental flights have been completed at the Air Force Academy in the city of Pirassununga, in inland São Paulo State. The Acauã is now part of a project conducted by the DCTA, the Brazilian Army and Navy, Flight Technologies, and Rio de Janeiro-based Bossan Computação Científica (BCC). The partners are planning to design an automatic takeoff and landing technology, which got off to a good start when the initial runway experiments were completed in August 2013. The project has been awarded R$4 million in funding from Finep. “We developed a system with DGPS-based proximity sensors, which assures very precise satellite positioning, and a radar altimeter that can measure the aircraft’s height in relation to the ground. Before now, takeoffs and landings were always controlled by an operator,” D’Oliveira explains.
Also at the DCTA, researchers from the Aeronautics and Space Institute (IAE), in partnership with professors from ITA and engineers from TGM Turbinas, a company based in the city of Sertãozinho, state of São Paulo, are working on another project that may further propel the Brazilian drone industry. More specifically, they are developing a turbojet engine powered by aviation fuel for use in UAVs weighing up to 2,645 pounds. The Low Thrust Aeronautical Turbine (TAPP) is the first Brazil-made product of its kind, with high durability and an output of 5,000 newtons (N) – enough to power an aircraft of up to 3,300 pounds. “We’re designing a group of turbines for use in UAVs and missiles, as well as a line for electric generators,” says Alexandre Roma from TGM, one of the engineers in charge of the project. He reveals that the equipment will not initially be installed in the Falcão, but rather in aerial targets for fighter pilot training.
In July 2013, the IAE bench-tested the TAPP for the first time. According to mechanical engineer José Francisco Monteiro, project coordinator, all of the turbine’s components were made in Brazil except one: the bearing that supports its axis. The project’s goals include training Brazilian manpower so that the TAPP can enter mass production. “Since this turbine can be fitted onto long-range missiles, the existing nuclear weapon nonproliferation treaties have made its commercialization more difficult. The alternative is to manufacture the turbine in Brazil,” says Monteiro. Additional testing for the TAPP is scheduled to take place by the end of 2013, aiming for a maximum operating speed of 28,000 rotations per minute. The project has been awarded R$30 million in funding from Finep. The agency has already executed 23 contracts and agreements, worth a total of R$69 million, for research and technological development of UAVs in Brazil, says William Respondovesk, head of Finep’s Department for the Aerospace, Defense and Security Industries.
The inherent advantages in using drones in military operations – exemplified most clearly by American military operations after September 11, 2001, has increasingly attracted the attention of many countries. From 2005 to 2012, for instance, the number of nations that acquired UAV technology rose from 41 to 76. During the same period, the number of drone research programs in these countries jumped from 195 to 900, fueling a continually evolving market. The U.S. still controls a large chunk of the industry. Northrop Grumman and General Atomics Aeronautical Systems together account for 63% of the world’s drone production, according to the U.S. Government Accountability Office.
Annual spending on UAV research, development and sales is also expected to double over the next decade, reaching $12 billion and totaling $90 billion over the next ten years, according to World unmanned aerial vehicles systems, market profile and forecast 2013, a report released in June 2013 by Teal Group, an American consulting firm that specializes in the aerospace and defense industries. The U.S. Department of Defense is expected to maintain its leading position in the UAV industry. Israel comes in second, accounting for 41% of all drones exported between 2001 and 2011, according to the Stockholm International Peace Research Institute, an organization that conducts research into issues related to international conflict and security.
Recent advances in computational technology along with the development of lighter materials and advanced global navigation systems have been catching the eye of researchers who use drones to capture data in difficult-to-access areas. On June 13, 2013, the journal Nature published an article showing how this type of technology can be useful to the academic world. Researchers from the University of Colorado, to name just one example, have been using UAVs to measure jet streams in Antarctica. This may help them understand the dynamics that gave rise to the formation of Antarctic glaciers. Biologists have also incorporated UAVs into their field work. In India, the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) has been using drones to detect the presence of poachers.
This expansion beyond military applications has also been seen in Brazil. In recent years, at least five local companies have begun to invest in the research and development of new UAVs. AGX is one of them. Based in the city of São Carlos, state of São Paulo, the company has been engaged since 2009 in a joint effort with the National Institute of Science and Technology for Critical Embedded Systems (INCT-SEC), based at the São Carlos campus of the University of São Paulo (USP). Their goal is to design UAV solutions for agricultural, environmental, and mining applications. “This is the most dynamic and fastest-growing sector of the aerospace and defense industry worldwide,” says AGX CEO Adriano Kancelkis. The company received funding from FAPESP’s Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe).
Two of AGX’s drones, the Tiriba and Arara II, include Brazilian technology. They have different characteristics, but can be adapted in many ways for use in agricultural missions. The two UAVs can be used in aerial surveys, using conventional high-definition cameras, sensors, and thermal and multispectral cameras. “This technology is able to accurately identify pests and gaps in crops, as well as areas affected by erosion and river silting,” Kancelkis explains. The Tiriba, released in 2011, has an electric engine, maximum speed of 54 knots, and flight autonomy of 30 minutes. The drone is currently being used in a pilot project for environmental monitoring in partnership with the Environmental Military Police of the state of São Paulo. “We have completed a few flights, but the UAV is still awaiting certification by the National Civil Aviation Agency [Anac], the institution responsible for authorizing these aircraft to fly,” says Kancelkis.
The company has also been investing in new models like the VSX, a UAV developed in partnership with INCT-SEC and Aeroálcool, a company based in the city of Franca, state of São Paulo. With a flight autonomy of 20 hours, the VSX can accomplish missions at a range of 2,160 nautical miles at a speed of 108 knots. “The VSX was designed to carry synthetic aperture radar (SAR). In a forest, the radar can map not just the tops of the trees, but also what’s on the ground below,” says Kancelkis. The project received R$2 million in funding from Finep. The VSX will be used by the manufacturer of its radar equipment (Orbisat, based in the city of Campinas) for surveillance in areas of urban conflict, natural disasters, and border monitoring. AGX also recently secured a partnership with Purdue University, in the United States. “Our goal is to operate in the precision agriculture segment in the U.S. and develop new technologies for remote sensing,” says Kancelkis.
Between 2010 and 2013, XMobots, a company based in the city of São Carlos, mapped and quantified deforestation in the area surrounding the Jirau Hydroelectric Plant, which is currently under construction on the Madeira River in the state of Rondônia. “We wanted our UAV, the Apoena, to capture images that would reveal whether the companies were complying with environmental laws and regulations,” explains Giovani Amianti, a partner at XMobots, which also received Pipe funding in 2007. After a few months, the images produced by the drone started being used as a parameter to determine the areas that each company had deforested. The Apoena completed operations over the course of 18 months and was then replaced by a different model of drone, the Nauru, for an additional year. “The Apoena is now technologically mature. We intend to release a new version in early 2014. It will be a larger, safer aircraft with flight autonomy of more than eight hours and the ability to operate in urban areas,” says Amianti.
The Nauru is a smaller UAV than the Apoena, with a five-hour flight autonomy, weighing 33 pounds, and having a wingspan of 7.5 feet. In May 2013, Anac awarded the Nauru its Experimental Flight Authorization Certificate. “This makes us the only company in Brazil authorized by Anac to perform flights for UAV research and development. Before us, only the Brazilian Federal Police had civilian UAVs certified to fly in the country,” says XMobots director Fábio Henrique Assis. But he explains that the certification process for these aircraft is simpler, as the Nauru will be used for agricultural purposes, in a restricted airspace. In June, during a geotechnology convention in São Paulo, the company released the Echar, a new model weighing 13 pounds, and with a wingspan of 6.9 feet and flight autonomy of 60 minutes. It will be used for surveillance against illegal mining, illegal logging, and invasion of environmental preservation areas, as well as for crop yield forecasting. “The Echar’s development was tailored to our clients’ needs,” says Amianti.
Ana Paula CamposIn Gavião Peixoto, a city near São Carlos, researchers at Embrapa Instrumentation also use drones in precision agriculture. A different model, resembling a mini-helicopter, periodically flies over orange plantations in order to detect greening, a disease that impairs fruit ripening and yellows the trees’ leaves. “We’ve been using UAVs in agricultural activities since 1998, with the Autonomous Radio-Assisted Reconnaissance Aircraft project (Arara), in partnership with Professor Onofre from USP (see Pesquisa FAPESP Issue No. 123),” says electronics engineer Lúcio Jorge from Embrapa. “We invested in the development of image processing methodologies for low-cost drones.” Embrapa purchased the unmanned mini-helicopter, used as a pesticide duster for rice, soybean and wheat crops, from the American company Rotomotion. “This project enabled us to develop software and image capturing systems for different agricultural applications in Brazil,” says the researcher. “But the project requires additional investment, especially because Rotomotion is a small company that would have trouble meeting Brazil’s full demand, including training and system adaptations.” Embrapa also uses multirotor systems, known as multicopters, which operate on free software and provide a less costly technology option.
Even with the segment’s fast development, UAV flights still lack specific regulation. “We base ourselves on the existing requirements for manned aircraft,” explains Assis from XMobots. The main risk factors currently associated with drone flights worldwide are the safety of people in fly-over areas, potential collisions with aircraft that share the same airspace, and property damage in the event of a crash. “They should be treated as aircraft, not toys,” says Professor João Batista Camargo Júnior from USP’s Polytechnic School (Poli). He believes that specific rules should be put in place according to the intended purposes of each drone. According to Nei Brasil, president of Flight Technologies – which has already developed and delivered three small drones to the Brazilian Army and Navy –, Anac is planning to regulate civilian UAV flights by 2014. “Anac is following the recommendations of the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), which has created work groups to discuss rules for UAV use in the civilian market,” he says. According to Camargo Júnior, the Brazilian authorities should proceed with care. “When it comes to UAVs, aviation authorities should protect the population’s safety without compromising the local industry R&D.”
1. A system for the automatic mapping of agricultural productivity (nº 2005/04485-2); Grant Mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe); Coordinator Rafael Alexandre Ferrarezi/AGX; Investment R$ 52,152.00 (FAPESP).
2. Project for a certifiable avionics system for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) (nº 2007/55661-0); Grant Mechanism Innovative Research in Small Businesses Program (Pipe); Coordinator Giovani Amianti/XMobots; Investment R$ 56,940.84 and $16,670.37 (FAPESP).