The last rocket leaves Earth’s atmosphere full of human colonists and closes a chapter in our history. It is the final step in the human exodus to orbital space colonies as part of a world wide coordinated effort to save our home planet. The above video is the edit created for CNN from footage captured by Drone Dynamics on behalf of Blue Origin.
Impress Clients, Better Manage Projects and Save Time & Money
The idea may sound like science fiction, but it happens to be the self-proclaimed mission of a one of the world’s foremost visionaries Jeff Bezos. Taking the seventeenth spot on the Forbes 2015 World’s Most Powerful People Rankings. Jeff Bezos is the creator of the world’s largest online retailer, Amazon.com, and the founder of our client for this mission, Blue Origin.
Blue Origin is an American privately funded aerospace manufacturer and spaceflight services company, who in March 2016, was attempting to launch the fully autonomous New Shepard sub-orbital rocket into space and recover it for an unprecedented third time. This was a very important step in validating Blue Origin’s business model of reusing rocket boosters to usher in an era of safe and affordable space travel. As such, Blue Origin wanted to document the occasion. Unfortunately, being anywhere near an unpowered ballistic, hurtling towards the ground from the reaches of space was determined to be unsafe by Blue Origin’s Director of Safety. It was determined that persons would not be allowed within two miles of the launch pad and three miles from the landing pad. The only alternative way to capture the event on film from a close perspective was to use a combination of manned and unmanned aircraft to create a truly unique perspective of this pioneering event. Of all the solutions companies Blue Origin contacted, only Drone Dynamics had the experience and capability to handle a mission this complex, time sensitive, and dangerous.
Quick Overview of the Blue Origin Mission We Captured
Launch the New Shepard rocket to an altitude of approximately 340,000’
At the rockets apex, release the capsule
Land the rocket booster on a landing pad, two miles from the launch pad
Deploy parachutes on the capsule and land within a two mile radius of the landing pad
Drone Dynamics flight operations team was hired to film from a safe distance of two miles from launch pad and three miles from the landing pad
The Full Debrief
Filming the launch of the New Shepard was fraught with challenges, which gave Drone Dynamics the opportunity to flex our creative muscles and to develop timely and elegant solutions. Our first step was to plan the mission using a topographical map and the rocket flight plan. …(See Topo Pic below)… Immediately we identified the numerous variables involved in such a complex mission; all of which were compounded by the unavailability of a mulligan. If we missed the shot for any reason there was no chance to reset and try again.
The most difficult hurdle that we encountered was an exceedingly short deployment schedule. We had three weeks from the time the ink was dry on the contract to the rocket launch date. That means three weeks to plan the mission, ensure regulatory standards were met, and overcome the numerous technical challenges. This made staffing, acquiring materials and prepping aircraft orders of magnitude significantly more difficult. Luckily, Due to the fact that the rocket passed autonomously through multiple classes of airspace, Blue Origin had already filed a TFR, or temporary flight restriction, for all outside aircraft. This granted us the freedom to fly our aircraft at any altitude within the boundaries of the TFR and somewhat eased the headaches of normal Federal Aviation Authority regulations.
Once we had the timeline and mission requirements in place, we were able to identify the payloads and in turn, the aircraft configurations necessary to overcome the numerous unknowns and to capture the content. We developed a flight plan that boasted nine sUAS (small unmanned aerial vehicles) and a manned aircraft all meticulously choreographed down to the second.
Our aircraft were judiciously selected and modified by our team of seasoned technicians in order to navigate the vast distance required to complete our mission. At a distance of three miles, stock aircraft run into issues with interference, navigation, and endurance. Communicating at long ranges with a multi-rotor aircraft is difficult for a host of reasons, the first being path loss. Path loss is the degradation of signal strength over distance and applies to our video feed, our telemetry, and our command and control; all of which I will collectively refer to as our communications.
The inverse square law for power density is the model for all radio waves. That is to say every time you double your distance, you only receive one-fourth of your transmitted power. The signal degradation we experienced was further compounded by the EMI (electro-magnetic interference) produced by each vehicle’s propulsion system. As current runs through the power distribution system and ultimately the motors, magnetic fields are generated which can distort radio waves and limit communications. Fortunately, our team is very familiar with these forms of interference and understands the modifications necessary to overcome them quite well.
There are a couple of ways to improve communications. One is to transmit with more power, but due to the inverse square law, just pumping more power into the system is wasteful. Additionally, transmitting at high power would have put our other aerial systems at risk by creating more interference. The next way to boost communications is to use a directional antenna. A directional antenna will increase communications performance by taking the same amount of power that is initially distributed in all directions by a stock omnidirectional antenna and focuses it in a specific direction. While directional antennas extend your range without increasing power, they must be pointed in the direction of your aircraft at all times. In order to maintain control and quality video downlinks to our pilots and payload operators, we used a combination of quality power amplifiers and directional antennas to get the job done. The frequencies at which you transmit a radio waves also contributes to their ability to propagate. The lower radio frequencies possess the ability to travel distances better than their higher frequency counterparts. Our research and prior experience filming SpaceX test flights alerted us to another source of interference. The engine of the New Shepard produced massive amounts of EMI. Referencing once again our inverse square law, we were able to calculate the amount of power required and on what frequencies we needed to transmit our communications to ensure no loss of video or control. Of course, in the event of a communications loss for any or all aircraft, we outlined and rigorously tested fail-safes for each vehicle.
Coping with interference and signal degradation was only one part of a carefully balance equation. As we placed optics, gimbal stabilization, and communications gear onto the vehicles, their weight increased and their endurance decreased. We went through great pains to quickly source the lightest parts available including batteries with a very high energy density. Despite the rapidly approaching deadline, each subsystem was evaluated for capability versus weight added before earning a place on one of the vehicles. When we finished sourcing and modifying our aircraft, we had produced nine aerial videography platforms, which were largely impervious to EMI and could travel for miles while providing strong communications back to the team.
To further bolster our capability, we brought in a highly modified Cessna fixed-wing aircraft sporting a Gyron HD. The Gyron HD is electrically deployed to provide its camera a clear 360-degree view below the aircraft and. While creating a lot of regulatory and mission planning headaches, the Cessna added yet another unique and important perspective to the rocket launch. Anytime a single drone shares airspace with a manned aircraft it is a significant risk. Our plan called for nine drones to share the sky along with the manned Cessna. Although it may seem excessive to some, our expert team deemed this configuration necessary to ensure a successful operation.
We mitigated the risk of collision in a number of ways: expert mission planning, proficient inter-team communication, and an extremely qualified flight team. Drone Dynamics has spared no expense cultivating an incredible network of the nations most decorated pilots. Our flight teams have been working together effectively for years and are vital to the success of our missions. Further aiding in deconfliction, our mission plan defined subdivisions of the airspace and created vehicle specific airspace parameters, which were strictly monitored and maintained by each team’s visual observer.
From rocket ignition to capsule touchdown, ten minutes and twelve seconds would elapse. For a group of drones to travel two miles to the launch site and film the launch; then travel two miles to the landing pad and film the booster landing; then travel to the capsule and film the capsule landing; then travel back to the deployment site and land would have been outside of the unmanned vehicles capabilities. The average endurance of our sUAS is just over fifteen minutes in optimal conditions. Racing two miles across the desert at speeds approaching sixty miles-per-hour is not an optimal condition and greatly reduced our flight time. For this reason we divided the mission into three sub-missions for the drones: launch, booster recovery, and capsule recovery. The Cessna had an on target, or loiter time, of 4 hours and was not constrained by endurance. For this reason, the Cessna was able to film the entire length of the rocket mission, the only exception being the portion of the rockets flight trajectory that took place after exiting the troposphere.
Even after breaking the mission into three smaller operations, endurance was a factor to be watched. To make matters worse, rocket launches are unpredictable things and are susceptible to multiple delays leading up to the launch. Delays could range from two minutes to two hours and could be caused by an array of variables. Due to the distance from our flight operations to the launch pad, the aircraft designated to film the launch needed to deploy five-minutes prior to rocket ignition. This would allow for travel time and the setting up of initial key frames. If we experienced a five-minute delay, the aircraft would have enough power to film the launch, but not enough reserves to return home and land. If we fell victim to a ten-minute delay, the drones would have neither enough battery to film the length of the rocket launch, nor return home and land. In the event of those delays or any issue preventing the drones from returning to the deployment site, auxiliary drone landing sites near the launch and landing pads were selected and briefed. Any delay longer than fifteen-minutes allowed for the return of the sUAS to the deployment site for a battery swap and redeployment.
Furthermore, the airspace was subdivided into four horizontal slices each with a one hundred foot buffer between them. The first was from the ground to four hundred feet AGL (above ground level). The second was from five hundred feet to nine hundred feet AGL and so on, with the last slice dedicated solely to the Cessna and reached from two thousand feet to ten thousand feet AGL. As safety is always our number one priority, dedicating airspace exclusively to the manned aircraft was of the utmost importance in guaranteeing the safety of those aloft.
Each aircraft was assigned a very detailed flight plan that dictated takeoff time, altitude, and position. Each flight plan was engineered to maximize aircraft deconfliction while optimizing flight time to capture the comprehensive shot list. Drone take off times were staggered every fifteen seconds to give each aircraft a wide birth and further deconfliction. Only one individual was given a communications radio and was responsible for relaying information from Blue Origin mission control to the flight team. This ensured uncluttered communications throughout the process and was vital to getting the aircraft timing down.
Each vehicle had a team of three people. The pilot of the vehicle, the payload, the camera operator, and a visual observer that served multiple roles from obstacle avoidance to relaying telemetry data being received from the aircraft, to keeping the team within the mission parameters. This is the optimal team compilation, which allowed our flight team to pull off what others claimed as impossible.
Watching the rocket ignite and liftoff through bellowing smoke was breathtaking through the eyes of a drone; a vantage point once impossible to achieve. The trail of thick white smoke spiraled upward chasing the New Shepard on its way to the heavens. The rumble, slightly delayed on its two-mile journey to greet us, nearly overloaded the senses of hearing and touch. To maximize fuel efficiency, New Shepard’s booster rocket hurtles towards the earth at speeds approaching Mach four and does not reignite the booster until under the five thousand foot mark. This is harrowing feat to observe and its extreme velocity produces a shock wave known as a sonic boom, which rattled the buildings around us from three miles away. Once the booster’s engine reignited, its downward momentum quickly halted and it autonomously positioned itself perfectly on it landing pad. All the while our aircraft moved about the scene, flawlessly capturing the entire spectacle from multiple perspectives–far closer to the action than any person would ever have the opportunity to be.
Before the booster even reentered Earth’s atmosphere, the aircraft dedicated to filming the capsule were launched and searching the sky for the bright blue parachutes that would reveal the position of the capsule. Parachutes are great at slowing down masses as they plummet to the earth, but they are very susceptible to cross winds and can be carried miles off course. This was yet another variable the flight team overcame and we were able to capture multiple angles of the capsule’s graceful touchdown.
Once the rocket had landed and was made safe by the Blue Origin team, we collected footage from all aircraft and immediately backed it up on several hard drives. Data control is fundamental and chain of custody was closely guarded. Once the footage was consolidated and handed over our job was complete, and the awe-inspiring feat of engineering we documented could be shared with the world.
Jeff Bezos is well on his way to revolutionizing the way we think about and interact with outer space. Blue Origin is the manifestation of that dream. The video documenting the momentous occasion of Blue Origin’s third successful launch and recovery of the same New Shepard asset was released less than twenty-four hours after the landing. Although there seemed an insurmountable amount of technical issues, which presented themselves throughout the few short weeks leading up to the mission, our ability at Drone Dynamics to adapt and overcome proved to be more than satisfactory to complete its mission in a timely and professional manner. The rocket launch and our coverage of the event was a colossal success. Like Blue Origin, Drone Dynamics overcame incredible adversity to achieve a feat that has never before been accomplished.
Drone Dynamics is a professional services, technology integration and data analytics company dedicated to leveraging the latest from the rapidly evolving world of drone hardware, sensors and data modeling software in order to provide its aerospace clientele with strong competitive advantages in terms of readily available, accurate and affordable aerial data, and new and inspiring capabilities.
Tell us about your project and what you’d like to see.
We’ll fly it, map it, model it and share it with you and your colleagues at no cost or obligation.*
*Restricted to qualified commercial entities in the US. Other restrictions may apply.