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The Countdown: Smallsat Launchers and Dancing Drones

  1. Smallsat Launchers

Vector Space Systems is the latest startup to enter the race to build a cheap launcher for smallsats. The company’s Vector-R rocket launched this past week on a suborbital test flight from Camden Spaceport in Georgia. There was some pretty good drone footage captured of the successful launch, which can be viewed here.

The business case for smallsat launchers like Vector is built on the fact that there is no easy, quick access to space for smallsats. Currently most smallsats have to piggyback onto the launches of much larger payloads or, in some cases, ride on the commercial resupply missions and get deployed from the International Space System. This leads to suboptimal orbital positioning as the main payload takes preference. The other issue for smallsats is the lack of a high launch frequency. The Falcon 9 and the Ariane 5 have large backlogs and launch around a combined 25-30 times a year. And there is still the question of the demand for standalone smallsats at the launch frequencies Rocket Lab and others are pushing for. Many companies such as OneWeb have explored constellations of small satellites in favor of traditional standalone large satellites. While constellations are generally cheaper and less prone to failure (if one smallsat fails the system as a whole does not and you can just send up a replacement), there has yet to be widespread adoption in the industry. Many of the small rocket launchers may not even receive much of the smallsat constellation business as the payload of a large smallsat constellation is more suited for a Falcon 9 or Ariane 5. Also, the current class of smallsat launcher startups (Rocket Lab, Virgin Orbit, Vector, and bankrupt Firefly) have yet to launch a single paying customer. For now, it looks like the smallsat launcher market will increase access to space for smallsat startups, researchers and university students, and cash-strapped governments.


  1. NASA’s Planetary Protection Officer

Apparently this is a thing:

“US government scientists work hard to protect the public.Some study infectious diseases and effective treatments. Others ensure that drugs, food, vehicles, or consumer products live up to their claims and don’t harm anyone. But the concerns at NASA’s headquarters are, quite literally, extraterrestrial — which is why the space agency now has a job opening for “planetary protection officer.” ”

But, as William Harwood of Spaceflight Now points out, the planetary defense officer will not be protecting earth from Independence Day like aliens. Instead:

“…the “aliens” in question are microbes not sentient beings — one had to read the actual stories to find out the office is part of a long-standing program to make sure NASA spacecraft don’t contaminate other planets with any earthly bugs and ensure that any samples returned to Earth are properly isolated and pose no threat to our ecosystem.

Catharine “Cassie” Conley is the outgoing Planetary Protection Officer, the seventh to hold the post. She came on board in 2006 and, like her predecessors, reports directly to the NASA administrator.

“As the Planetary Protection Officer for NASA, I am responsible for ensuring that the United States complies with Article IX of The Outer Space Treaty,” she said in a NASA interview.

“Article IX specifies that planetary exploration should be carried out in a manner so as to avoid contamination of the bodies we are exploring throughout the solar system, and also to avoid any adverse effects to Earth if materials are brought back from outer space. ”

While I was going to make a quip about how a planetary defense officer should worry more about the actions of humans on earth rather than aliens, the job is much more serious than its click-bait worthy title indicates.


  1. Pratt and Whitney GTF Issues Continue

Engine maker Pratt and Whitney has been causing headaches for customers of its new geared turbofan (GTF) engine technology for a couple of years now. Now Pratt and Whitney has to pay Indigo, a fast growing Indian LCC which bought 430 A320neos, an undisclosed sum of money due the company’s inability to deliver glitch free engines. Per Bloomberg:

“The airline, operated by InterGlobe Aviation Ltd., was forced to ground as many nine new A320neo jets on some days, Ghosh said. It may be a year or so before Pratt & Whitney implements design changes to the geared turbofan, he said.

The groundings, which emerged in recent months, are holding back IndiGo’s push to add capacity to maintain its domestic market share of more than 40 percent amid a travel boom triggered by an emerging middle-class flying for the first time. The airline, India’s biggest and the world’s top customer for the A320neo, has said in the past it will consider a rival engine manufactured by CFM International, an alliance of General Electric Co. and Safran SA, if glitches persist with the Pratt & Whitney models.”

One of the more interesting parts to watch of the Pratt and Whitney A320neo fiasco is if CFM could capitalize on Pratt and Whitney’s GTF struggles. While it would seem natural for A320neo customers to switch to the CFM LEAP-1A engine in the face of the repeated P&W delays, there are a variety of factors holding back an exodus from P&W.

  1. CFM Production Capacity and the LEAP-1B

CFM has a full production backlog with the LEAP-1A for the A320neo and the LEAP-1B, the exclusive power source of the 737MAX. There is little room for A320neo customers to switch engine providers.

  1. PW1000G performance

P&W’s GTF technology, while with its many issues, is a disruptive technology that has exceeded fuel-burn performance expectations. If (once) P&W resolves the issues, the PW1100G presents A320neo family operators long-term cost savings.

Meanwhile: Rolls-Royce more than doubles net profit in 1H


  1. Boeing Enters Avionics:

“Boeing Co. is creating a new unit that develops avionics for its commercial and military aircraft, a move that potentially pits the planemaker against suppliers such as Rockwell Collins Inc. and Honeywell International Inc.

Rockwell Collins posted the biggest decline in almost six years on the news that its second-largest customer is planning a rival product lineup. Boeing Avionics will focus on navigation, flight controls, information systems and other technology with a goal of bringing goods to market next decade, the Chicago-based company told employees Monday.

The move is part of a strategic shift as Boeing tries to reap cash across the life span of a jetliner, even if it risks straining supplier ties. The manufacturer is bringing more work in-house as it studies whether to make or buy thousands of aircraft components. Boeing Global Services, a new division founded July 1, is expanding into higher-margin maintenance and spare-parts sales — a traditional source of profit for its subcontractors.”

Boeing is directly challenging its suppliers, mainly Rockwell Collins and Honeywell, with its decision to enter the avionics market. As Seth Miller of Runway Girl Network points out, Rockwell’s decision to diversify by purchasing seat supplier B/E Aerospace makes a lot more strategic sense now.

The ramifications of Boeing’s avionics move will not be felt for a few years as the 737MAX, 777X, and the 787 all have avionics supplier deals wrapped-up. This means that the long-rumored 797 middle-of-the-market (MOM) aircraft will most likely be the first to affect Boeing’s avionics suppliers.


  1. Dancing Drones:

Wayne McGregor on mixing dance with drones:

“ “I’ve had it in my head for ages to do something with drones,” says McGregor, “although apparently we’re not allowed to call them drones, they’re autonomous flying objects.” They are not drones in the way we might imagine them but diaphanous, spherical globes, a metre-and-a-half across. “They fly very softly and elegantly, and they have algorithms based on swarming and flocking,” he explains.

Visitors will be able to watch the spheres from a distance — “That in itself is beautiful, like when you watch a flock of birds change direction” — or walk in among them, where “you can have an interactivity with these flying objects, hopefully in a really beautiful, poetic way”. Finally, McGregor is choreographing a short dance piece that will be performed inside the installation, with 15 dancers from his own company and the Royal Ballet. It sounds great, but McGregor points out, “We’re still in test phase. It is literally an experiment.” Collisions aren’t out of the question, but the spheres are light and full of helium, so it shouldn’t be calamitous.”

  1. This Week in Too-Crazy-to-be-True Airline Stories:

Teen opens plane’s emergency door, jumps onto wing, then tarmac:

“ ‘We (had) just landed and then I hear some people scream … like, ‘No!”‘ 11-year-old passenger Andrea Sepulveda Guzman told CBS San Francisco. “And then this guy, I see him jump on the wing and then he starts climbing down the wing and then he just runs. And then he just starts running the other way. And everyone was just screaming.’ ”


  1. Snap explores buying a Chinese drone company

The Information (paywall) is reporting that Snap Inc. is in talks to buy Zero Zero Robotics, a Chinese drone manufacturer best known for the Passport Selfie Drone, for around $250-300 million (significantly larger than Snap’s previous acquisition of drone maker Ctrl Me Robotics for $1 million). While Zero Zero is denying the report, the deal has potential ramifications for the consumer drone industry. Unlike GoPro’s foray into the drone industry with the Karma, which had to be recalled for infamously shutting off mid-flight, Snap would have an established hard product and would not have to undertake the expensive and difficult task of developing a drone from scratch. The Passport selfie drone is also one of the most consumer friendly drones on the market as it takes no flying skills to operate and is wrapped in a square protective plastic case that makes it easy to grab hold of and very safe to operate around people and objects. With the backing of Snap, which has incredible brand recognition and marketing power, a Snapchat drone could take up a significant chunk of the low cost consumer market.

This could pose problems for DJI which has a stranglehold over the premium prosumer and enterprise segment but is weaker in the low cost consumer segment. But the company is making progress. Earlier this year DJI introduced Spark, a compact $499 easy-to-fly drone explicitly aimed at the cost conscious consumer market to critical acclaim.

It will be interesting to see if Snap goes through with the deal.


  1. The DJI Geofence Controversy

One of the most controversial topics in the drone industry right now is DJI’s Geofence feature, which blocks DJI drones from flying in designated no-fly zones and above certain altitudes. Pilots view this as an infringement on their right-to-fly. DJI on the other hand is trying to remove itself from any potential liability in the case of an encounter between passenger aircraft and a rouge DJI Drone.

The Geofence is relatively easy to get around with the prevalence of software for sale on the internet that disables Geofence. This past week DJI announced that its new firmware update patches many of the exploits hackers were using to disable geofence. However as Malek Murison of Dronelife reports, it seems to (unsurprisingly) have done little to close the Geofence hack:

“What wasn’t mentioned in the statement was the fact that downgrades to older DJI firmware are now widely available. So even with new updates pushed, the hacker community can continue to tweak features for the Mavic Pro, Inspire, Spark and many of DJI’s other models.

According to one who spoke with Dronelife, “Their comment was completely worthless and, more importantly… the actual update came out weeks ago… we’ve been hacking along ever since… no one in our group cares at all. We are doing what ever we want, swapping out firmware versions like underwear day by day.”

‘Literally none of what they wrote matters in the face of downgrades via [available exploits such as] DUMLdore, Pyduml and DUMLrub.’”


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