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Airborne: Reborn / Volume XIII / September 30th 2020

In an exceptionally busy week for New Aerospace news we feature methane-sniffing satellites from Canada, laser-based sensors making their way from Mars rovers to multicopters, sulphur-sensing unmanned maritime patrol helicopters and a solar-powered cross-Channel drone.

Beyond that there’s a new Chinese ‘flying car’, a flurry of eVTOL MOUs from Japan, British cash for smart chargers, electric helicopter ambitions in California, a hydrogen-powered plane, a battery-electric airliner update from Sweden, progress on Rolls-Royce’s ‘ionBird’ and an Israeli UAV in Wales.

And to round the week off we’ve got US drone pilots working from home, Wing spreading in Australia, drone delivery updates from India, a job building space stations for Jeff Bezos, an Emirati supercomputer eyeing up space junk and another autonomous Chinese helicopter testing in Tibet - it’s Airborne: Reborn XIII.


TOP STORY: Rise of the Sniffer Drones - from seeking out sulphur to monitoring methane

‘Sniffer Drones’ are nothing new - NASA’s Dryden Flight Research Center were using unmanned aircraft to test the air for pollution as far back as 1975 - but widespread commercial use of UAVs for such monitoring is a more modern phenomenon.

Methane leaking from hydrocarbon wells and pipelines is not just wasted energy and money, but a potent source of environmentally damaging greenhouse gas emissions. As regulations tighten and sensor technology improves both satellites and drones are helping detect such leaks.

Canada’s GHGSat ($55m USD in funding) monitor global emissions from space and launched their latest proprietary IRIS satellite aboard an Arianespace Vega VV16 rideshare mission four weeks ago, along with 53 other spacecraft:

Just one methane leak detected by the company (and then plugged by Turkmen Oil) is estimated to have had an impact equivalent to “…about one million cars taken off the road per year.”

Back here on Earth a whole range of sensors are being deployed on drones to monitor everything from landfill, oil and gas related methane emissions to sulphur spewing from ships or waterholes running dry in the Australian outback.

Following a two year test run by Avitas Systems - using a combination of laser-based detection and Optical Gas Imaging (OGI) - Shell recently announced that drones will now monitor more than 500 of their shale oil extraction sites across the company’s Permian Basin portfolio in West Texas / New Mexico:

Austin-based SeekOps prefer the Tunable Laser Spectrometer (TLS) sensors developed by founder Andrew Aubrey at NASA’s Jet Propulsion Laboratory from TLS tech that sits on the Curiosity rover sniffing for signs of bacterial life on Mars:

The company have just signed a deal with Flylogix in the UK for remote methane sensing at oil and gas assets in the North Sea using their FX2 fixed-wing aircraft.

Meanwhile French maritime authorities have commenced a 3-month trial of flight operations (with a consortium that includes Schiebel, Nordic Unmanned and the European Maritime Safety Agency) to enforce IMO 2020 sulphur emissions regulations in the North Sea Sulphur Emission Control Area (SECA). The flights relay live data and ships shown to be using fuel with greater than a 0.1% concentration of sulphur may be subject to a ship inspection at their next port of call:

From a nearby spot on the French coast this week Sunbirds’ autonomous, solar-powered SB4 Phoenix UAS completed a 100km, 2hr 20 min flight from France to England and back again - entirely powered by the sun, and landing with batteries fully charged:

A more familiar mission for the aircraft, antipodean in almost every sense, is remote monitoring of water infrastructure on large Australian cattle stations where drones are proving a cost-effective alternative to helicopter and ground vehicle operations.


Fresh off the back of a $1.5bn+ IPO on the NYSE this August Chinese electric car company Xpeng (XPEV), headquartered in Guangzhou, unveiled their two-passenger ‘Kiwigogo’ eVTOL (via SCMP):

Volocopter investors Japan Airlines signed an agreement with the German eVTOL company to explore Urban Air Mobility opportunities in Japan (via Volocopter) and brought Mitsui Sumitomo Insurance and MS&AD InterRisk on board through an MOU that will see them collaboratively explore eVTOL opportunities in the country, research how to assess risk, conduct and insure safe operations and research social acceptance (via JAL).

Vertical Aerospace in the UK announced the award of £2.3m in funding from the UK’s Aerospace Technology Institute to develop a ‘smart charger’ (via Vertical Aerospace).

Coachella-based Eco Helicopters announced the launch of an Urban Air Mobility service in California using conventionally-powered R-44 helicopters. It intends to replace them with all-electric ‘EcoMax’ versions from KiloWatt Aviation - subject to the FAA issuing a Supplemental Type Certificate (STC) to Tier 1 Engineering for their conversion of the aircraft (via PR Newswire, AIN):


British startup ZeroAvia flew what they claim is presently “the largest hydrogen powered aircraft in the world” from their R&D facility at Cranfield in the UK. The aircraft is a converted Piper M-class six-seater which previously flew in a battery-electric configuration in June (via ZeroAvia):

Swedish Y-Combinator graduates Heart Aerospace unveiled the electric drivetrain that will power their 19-seat, electric ES-19 regional airliner at a press event in a hangar in Gothenburg (via

Rolls-Royce completed ground-testing of the 500hp ‘ionBird’ powertrain which they hope will power their ‘Spirit of Innovation’ aircraft to over 300mph and set a new electric world speed record (via Rolls-Royce):


Israeli defence contractor Elbit Systems continue to run trials of their Hermes 900 UAS (15m wingspan | 350kg payload | 36-hr endurance) for search and rescue / maritime patrol missions with the UK’s Maritime & Coastguard Agency. The flights were operated in uncontrolled airspace in Wales as part of the ‘Government Drone Pathfinder’ programme (via DroneLife):

A range of drone delivery trials with food and medicines are set to begin in India once the Ministry of Home Affairs conclude security clearance checks. 10 consortia have been granted permits for BVLOS operations, including food aggregator Zomato in Alwar, Rajasthan and hyperlocal delivery platform Dunzo near Bengaluru - both will work with Alternative Global India (via Inc42).

Verizon subsidiary Skyward has taken working from home to another level, after the FAA granted their pilots permission to conduct remote drone inspections from their homes (via CDP):

Japan Airlines signed an MOU with Matternet which will see the companies work together on proof-of-concept drone delivery trials in Japan. The M2 drone system will carry medical cargo on BVLOS flights in “a dense urban area in the heart of Tokyo” (via Market Screener).

Google X Lab alumni Wing will expand drone delivery operations in Australia following a 500% demand increase during COVID-19 restrictions (via Australian Aviation).

SkyGrid launched Flight Control - an all-in-one drone app for mission planning and execution - just a week after Boeing plunged the future of their involvement in the JV with SparkCognition into question (via Geospatial World).


Canada’s Kepler Communiciations announced the successful launch of KEPLER-4 and KEPLER-5 aboard a Soyuz rocket. These first multi-spectrum (Ku + narrowband) GEN-1 satellites will enable first trials of the company’s everywhereIOT service and make use of proprietary Software Defined Radio technology (via telecompaper).

Tong Hsing Electronic Industries in Taiwan were reported to be suppliers to SpaceX’s Starlink programme (via DigiTimes).

AbuDhabi based AI company Group 42 (home to the Artemis supercomputer) is said to be actively pursuing opportunities within space traffic management and debris mitigation (via The National).

Blue Origin are recruiting an ‘Orbital Habitat Formulation Lead’ who’ll be responsible for leading development of a new ‘Orbital Habitat product line’ (via Space News).


AVIC claimed an altitude record with their AR500C (80kg payload | 5hr endurance) this week; highest take-off and landing of an autonomous helicopter. A 15-min test flight was conducted from Daochen Yading Airport - the world’s highest at 14,472 ft / 4,411m above sea level - on the Tibetan plateau. Developed especially for ‘plateau operations’ the aircraft has a 170kmh top speed and service ceiling of 7,000m / 23,000ft (via The Inquirer):


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