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The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International (AUVSI), a trade organization for the drone industry, is hosting a convention this week in Washington, DC. The show is a place for law enforcement, government officials, military officers, and private industry to meet, talk shop about unmanned robots, and buy and sell new drones.

Though the exhibition floor is filled with drones from manufacturers all over the world, most of the machines look fairly similar: There’s the “matchstick with wings” design popularized by the Predator; the radially-symmetric simplicity of small, helicopter-like quadrotors; and the wedge-shaped flying wings.

To break up that monotony, here are 10 of the oddest machines on display.

Styrofoam Drone

The Skate, created by Aurora Flight Sciences, is a $38,000 drone made mostly of Styrofoam. The 2-pound drone is launched by hand and can fly for 60 minutes. Piloted by a simple control system that vaguely resembles a Gameboy Advance, it can fly for more than two miles while transmitting video back to the pilot, either in the regular visual spectrum or in infrared. Because Skate is light and can be put into the air quickly, soldiers under fire could use its streaming video to scope out the battlefield from above.

Pop-Up Drone

Created by Bird Aerospace, the Bird’s Eye drone comes in a launch cylinder that fires it 300 feet into the air, where it self-assembles and then flies for up to three hours. Whoa. Its full range is over 40 miles, though it can only stream high-definition video back to a pilot from 20 or fewer miles away. Images from the flight can also be stored on board, and collected from an SD card in the drone is retrieved. It also has a Styrofoam body like the Skate, and it too launches quickly enough to be useful to soldiers on the battlefield.

Hybrid Drone

This drone combines two common drone body types: quadrotors, which are great at taking off and landing vertically, but suck at flying forward quickly, and Predator-style push propellers, which are great at forward momentum but require a runway for takeoff and landing. This vehicle, from Latitude Engineering Group, is the best of both worlds. Four rotors, powered by electrical motors, let the drone take off and land vertically, which means it requires only a very small launch site. A propeller for thrust, powered by a gas engine, sends the drone zooming forward. This one has up to 15 hours of endurance and can carry a small camera or sensor system. There’s a larger version in the works, and I’m excited about the potential. Anywhere than can launch a helicopter could launch drones like this, meaning even modest helicopter carriers could suddenly sport large drone fleets to scout the ocean. This drone took two stale designs and combined them into something with a lot more flexibility, and it feels genuinely new.

Sonar Drone

Created by Toyon, the PescadAero is a flying sonar buoy. The drone flies to a river or coastal area, and then lands in the water. The head of the drone houses two systems—a camera for navigating and a sonar for underwater sensing. When the drone lands on the water, the head rotates 90 degrees, so the camera stays above the water and the sonar drops below the surface. Once there, the the sonar sweeps the ocean (or river) floor in wide swaths. It can map out the floor of a river as it drifts downstream, or might ride the tide and plot out underwater mines for a navy. When its task is complete, PescadAero can take off vertically from the water and fly home.

Matrix Software

The Sikorsky Matrix software is designed to give unmanned helicopters some autonomy; not to replace pilots, but to make flying easier for them. Sikorsky outfitted a commercial helicopter with the software and started test flights in July. The goal is to reduce helicopter crashes, while at the same time freeing the pilot for other tasks while in flight. To do that, the aircraft needs a degree of autonomy, and needs to fly more safely than drones usually do. Unmanned aircraft themselves don’t have a great crash record—they crash at a rate of about one per 1,000 flight hours. The aim of Matrix is to reduce that to one per 100,000 flight hours, and thus create a robot helicopter that people are comfortable riding in. Ultimately this could enable a remotely piloted medical evacuation helicopter, where the humans on board tend to injuries while the machine flies itself to a hospital.

Underwater Fish Robot

This is a scale model of Boston Engineering’s underwater fish robot, dubbed Ghost Swimmer. It swims like a tuna, propelling itself silently through the sea. It can carry sonar, making it a useful underwater scout for things like underwater mines and submarines. The project has received funding from the Office of Naval Research, and the Department of Homeland Security has expressed interest, too. Here is video of it in action:

Self-Driving Car Kit

Created by Southwest Research Institute, the item on display here is really just the cameras on top of the car and the software that powers them. With eight cameras in four pairs pointed outwards, the autonomous driving system can recognize the landscape around it, identifying dirt roads and grass fields to drive through and trees to avoid. Drivers can turn the system on or off depending on when he or she wants the robot to take the wheel. For the military, this means a vehicle could steer its passengers out of danger even with an injured driver.


Yup, this is an arm mounted on wheels. Made by HDT Global, the Adroit Arm System draws on human prosthetics to create a more useful robot limb. I once watched a bomb-squad robot spend 10 minutes trying to grab a stick. A more articulate hand could do the job much faster. It has an opposable thumb, which was scary in a robot-takeover way until it messed up stacking letter blocks; then it just looked like a sad toddler with a 40-pound grip. Okay, still scary.

Future Martian

Students at Worchester Polytechnic Institute built this machine for a robotics challenge project. The Autonomous Exploration RObot (AERO) is designed to collect samples for NASA on Mars. The robot has four cameras for surveying its surroundings, a surprisingly human-like arm, and multiple slots on its back to store samples. In theory, it would work like a little brother to the Curiosity rover, picking up and analyzing interesting rocks on distant planets.

Blimp-Like Glider

The gasoline-powered Nimbus EOS XI is part hang glider, part ultralight aircraft, and part blimp. It flies at only 15 miles per hour, which makes it perfect for slowly and carefully surveying an area. The 120-pound drone can fly for up to 90 minutes at 9,000 feet above sea level carrying a high-definition camera.