Orb Aerospace

Supporting the first trans-Pacific flight by an unmanned humanitarian drone

Orb Aerospace is ambitiously creating the world’s largest humanitarian air force by building innovative drones to deliver cargo for relief efforts. Our command-line interface for weather reporting will accelerate their efforts to complete a trans-Pacific flight by 2025.

Orb Aerospace

Orb Aerospace

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Often, the places in the world most desperate for humanitarian relief are also the most challenging to reach. Whether it’s a remote village or a city ravaged by a natural disaster, delivering relief quickly can be challenging where there’s a lack of infrastructure.

Orb Aerospace’s core vision is to build a humanitarian air force of high-tech drones. No, not the small, commercial kind you use to explore your neighborhood.

These aircraft—called Orbs—will have up to a 30 foot wingspan and be graded to carry 50-100 pounds of humanitarian cargo for ferry flights or rescue missions.

Whereas airliners travel from station to station, Orbs are independent from infrastructure. They can take off and land vertically, without reliance on an official airport or large runway. Yet, the aircraft has enough critical mass to travel anywhere, without dependence on traditional logistics—just fuel.

And they’ll be unmanned. The pilot will be in a virtual cockpit, using VR technology and a hydraulic chair to simulate all the tactile feedback of being in a plane.

As Orb Aerospace bursts onto the stage in the industry, they are pursuing a goal of their first pilotless trans-Pacific flight by 2025. They asked Michigan Software Labs to help them accelerate this process by designing a custom command-line interface for weather reporting.

How the microservice works:

The safety and success of any aircraft requires the pilot to have knowledge of current and upcoming weather patterns. This is equally important for a valuable, unmanned drone. The pilot operating from their virtual cockpit needs to know exactly what’s happening thousands of miles away.

That’s where Michigan Software Labs came in. We created a weather reporting microservice that converts raw weather data into the appropriate format required by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA).

The command line interface we designed for Orb Aerospace is highly configurable, so each pilot can adjust the weather patterns and reporting intervals to their needs.

To accomplish this, we used a functional architecture approach rather than imperative programming, which is our more common model. Functional design is highly modular, making it a smart choice for a project like this where we were working together to adjust and iterate almost daily.

For startups and manufacturing organizations, this level of ability to make rapid micro-improvements is critical. Orb truly understands the value of a minimal viable product (MVP). Speed in development, testing, and iterating is their specialty—both for software development and manufacturing—and we loved working with them in this way.

Key milestones:

  • Functional weather reporting: First, we needed to be able to retrieve the Aviation Routine Weather Report (METAR) data—which, to someone outside the aviation industry, looks like a random combination of letters and numbers—into human legible text. This identifies the weather patterns at the plane’s precise positioning. Then, we used Google Cloud’s Text-to-Speech AI to create the voiceover reading for the pilots.
  • Weather data scheduling: Next, we worked on pulling weather data back on an interval. This is key because when the system detects bad weather, it will switch into emergency mode and pull on a faster interval.

  • Database logging: Finally, we created something similar to a plane’s black box for weather data. We ensured the system would log as much information as possible for a pilot to reference in the case of a drone crash or problem.

Because Orb is actively manufacturing their equipment, one challenge with this project was the inability to visualize and demo our code. To solve this, our developers created a web simulation tool—using Streamlit—to simulate a flight path. This enabled us to see seven hours of weather patterns over just seven seconds in the test environment.

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