The Latest Patents Show New Drones Will Bounce, Swarm, and Transform

Every month, over 40,000 applications are made with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. About half that number of actual patents are granted monthly—usually after several years of review and refinement. (Legit patent applications are published 1...

Jul 20 2012, 5:00pm

Every month, over 40,000 applications are made with the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office. About half that number of actual patents are granted monthly—usually after several years of review and refinement. (Legit patent applications are published 18 months after submission, at which point they become “prior art” and subject to protection; i.e., “patent pending.”) Perhaps a few dozen of these intimately involve unmanned aerial vehicles.

But at a time when professors of philosophy at the Naval Postgraduate School (!) ponder the morality of drone warfare in the New York Times, UAVs are no doubt the prestige pinnacle of inventor-craft. What’s coming down the pipe?

System and method for controlling swarm of remote unmanned vehicles through human gestures

U.S. Patent 8,214,098 | Issued July 3, 2012

Assignee: The Boeing Company

Filed: February 27, 2009


A method is disclosed for controlling at least one remotely operated unmanned object. The method may involve defining a plurality of body movements of an operator that correspond to a plurality of operating commands for the unmanned object. Body movements of the operator may be sensed to generate the operating commands. Wireless signals may be transmitted to the unmanned object that correspond to the operating commands that control operation of the unmanned object.


Beyond awesome. For years, swarms of drones—whether insect-, bird-, or Predator-size—have been a particularly dystopic vision of our UAV future. Classically, the idea is that such swarms would be given a mission (surveillance, interception, kamikaze destruction), and then hive-mind AI based on the actual behavior of ants and the like would take over.

The Boeing idea puts a single human “pilot” (“god” might be the better word) in remote, real-time control of the whole party. Using Minority Report–style gestures (14 are described in the patent), he can select, group, un-group, re-group, and deploy the helicoptor swarm in potentially infinite combinations of crafts and missions. “In practice,” the inventors write, “it is anticipated that hundreds or more UAVs maybe be controlled by a single individual, both as a single group and a plurality of subgroups.” So will pilots in training practice with Homeworld?

Systems and Methods for Autonomous Operations of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles

U.S. Patent Application | Pub. April 5, 2012

Assignee: Lockheed Martin Corporation

Filed: October 5, 2010


Systems and methods are disclosed for autonomous or remote-controlled operation of unmanned aerial vehicles (“UAVs”). An integrated mechanical and electrical system is capable of launching, controlling, snagging, recovering, securing, parking, and servicing UAVs without human intervention at the site of the system. The illustrative embodiment comprises a boom and a container that houses the boom and UAV. The boom rotates about its longitudinal axis to operationally orient a plurality of faces thereof. Each face is associated with certain system operations, including but not limited to: launching a UAV, snagging a UAV from the air, and securing a UAV to the boom.


The wonderfully charming thing about patent-app line drawings: Most decline to provide a fixed scale. Thus, Lockheed’s concept might be a cute, tote-able shoe box for launching tiny mechanical homing pigeons. Or it could be the hangar-sized basis for the unmanned aircraft carrier of 2075. In either case, a swinging boom arm serves, at the start of a mission, as a runway for any number of fixed-wing UAVs; at the end, it rotates and deploys an arrestor cable to snag returning craft out of the air, then rotates again to safely store them away. Blown up to F-18 scales, such an operation would likely involve enough Gs to instantly kill a fighter jocks; happily, humans are out of the equation, whatever its size.

High velocity microbot

U.S. Patent 8,210,289 | Issued July 3, 2012

Assignee: The United States of America, as represented by the Secretary of the Navy

Filed: January 12, 2010


A microbot includes a spherical housing, first and second servomotors that are located internal to the housing and oriented horizontally and orthogonal to each other, and a plunger within the housing that selectively extends in the vertical direction. Castors are attached to each servomotor; and traction balls corresponding to each castor are placed so that each ball frictionally engages both a respective castor and the interior of the housing at the same time. As the servomotors rotate, the attached castors also rotate, which causes rotation of the traction balls and rolling of the housing, and results in translation of the microbot in the horizontal plane. As the plunger rapidly extends, it strikes the interior surface of the housing with sufficient force to cause a hopping motion of the microbot in the vertical direction.

Microbots, according to the inventors, are perfect for “audio and video surveillance in locations where it is too dangerous for humans or dogs,” as well as “detection of biological, nuclear, radiological, explosive and chemical agents in similar scenarios.” But land-bound microbots, typically propelled by miniature tank treads, are really slow. The solution? Rolling, hopping, and bouncing like little Sonic the Hedgehogs. How the Navy would deploy such a comical, nefarious device is unclear.

Transforming unmanned aerial-to-ground vehicle

U.S. Patent 8,205,820 | Pub. June 26, 2012

Assignee: Honeywell International, Inc.

Filed: February 3, 2009


A transforming unmanned aerial-to-ground vehicle assembly comprising: an aerodynamic flying assembly comprising an unmanned aerial vehicle integrated with an unmanned ground vehicle, a power unit shared by the unmanned aerial vehicle and the unmanned ground vehicle, vehicle controls shared by the unmanned aerial vehicle and the unmanned ground vehicle, a disengagement mechanism to separate the unmanned ground vehicle from the unmanned aerial vehicle, one or more manipulator arms located on either the unmanned aerial vehicle or the unmanned ground vehicle, and landing gear.


Just what it sounds like. A version of Honeywell’s vertical-takeoff UAV tech, shown in the video, transforms into an all-terrain UGV (unmanned ground vehicle) when it reaches its destination. Presumably the flying parts and then go back to base to ferry another UGV into battle. Or the two parts can stick together to make possible a quick escape.