Researchers in England have developed their own flying saucer — and it might be going to work for the U.S. and British militaries.
GFS Projects' unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) can soar high in the air, hover, bank and fly over any terrain, making it ideal for military surveillance.
It uses an aerodynamic principle known as the Coanda effect to take off vertically from any solid surface.
A propeller mounted atop the two-foot-wide aircraft pushes air down over the saucer-shaped body, creating a broad cone of thrust extending outward.
"The key to it is that it's very stable," explains David Steel, a director at GFS Projects in Peterborough, a medium-sized English city about 75 miles north of London. "You have a large base of air extending downward supporting the craft, looking something like a woman's skirt."
The current model, the GFS 13, is made of plywood and plastic and powered by electric batteries driving a regular automotive radiator fan.
"Five years ago, when we first started, we had a propeller custom-built," explains David Steel, a director at GFS Projects. "It took six months to develop, cost 10,000 pounds [close to $20,000] and broke after two weeks."
After that, the company decided to use nothing but off-the-shelf parts while it worked on the proof-of-concept phase of development.
"It can travel at 30 or 40 miles per hour over an open area," says Steel, "but that's not really important. What matters is that it can move in any direction over a large area, and is difficult to knock out of the air."
Since the underside of the craft is an aerodynamic "dead zone," a camera, cargo or payload could easily be mounted there without affecting the UAV's flight performance.
At the moment, a human operator controls the craft, which is about two feet across and weighs 15 pounds, via radio signals.
Steel says future models will be made of carbon composites, be powered by gasoline or diesel engines driving a much more efficient propeller and be guided by GPS-based autonomous flight-control systems.
"You would input coordinates via a laptop or PDA," says Steel, "and the craft would navigate itself. Best of all, those systems are now off the shelf as well."
Final production costs for each vehicle, Steel says, "would be in the low thousands of pounds — certainly much less than a Hummer or Range Rover."
Steel says GFS has received funding from the U.S. Army's International Technology Center-Atlantic's European Research Office, based in London. He didn't feel comfortable detailing the amount of funding involved, or what exactly it might be for other than "demonstration of concept."
Calls and e-mails to that U.S. military office in London were not immediately returned.
GFS is also competing against five other companies to win British Ministry of Defense funding for "autonomous surveillance systems," culminating next summer with timed trials assessing threats in a mock enemy village.
The company also says the craft could be used for civil purposes, such as search-and-rescue operations or infrastructure inspection in remote locations.
"The beauty of the UAV lies in its simplicity," says Steel. "There are very few moving parts, and if it bumps into a wall or mountain, it just bounces off and continues on its way."