Academics and postgraduates from the University of Sheffield have helped start-up AV8OR to develop the next generation of drones that will deliver everything from parcels to medicines and carry out complex monitoring.
Over the past decade or so, aerial ‘quadcopter’ drones have launched themselves into the public consciousness. They have become popular with hobbyists, photographers and filmmakers and proved useful for certain industrial applications, for example basic inspection of tall buildings or pipelines.
However, they have yet to truly deliver on early promises to transform logistics and haulage by zipping goods though the skies above us – whether that be internet orders, medicines, military supplies or more. One of the reasons is that current quadcopters struggle to transport all but the lightest of packages for anything more than a few miles before running out of battery power. They are also quite slow and inefficient compared with say a small aircraft with a fixed wing.
A knotty aeronautical challenge
For a number of years, local start-up company AV8OR has been working on ideas for a hybrid aerial quadcopter drone that incorporates elements of both hovering drones and ‘cruising’ fixed wing aircraft. This would bring the best of both worlds, with drones able to take off and land vertically without a long runway, but then switch into efficient, fast cruising flight, and back to hovering if required.
But it’s not as easy as simply attaching a fixed wing to a quadcopter drone, as AV8OR CEO, electrical engineer and qualified pilot Graham Kelly explains.
“The flight dynamics are challenging; there’s always a trade-off,” he says. “When you see an airliner take off, the nose points upwards; whereas with a helicopter, the nose points down. The flight principles are misaligned.”
Graham and his team came up with some theoretical solutions to the conundrum, involving an innovative airframe incorporating a tilting fixed wing. They successfully filed for a patent and developed an early prototype. But to take the concept further, the company needed outside academic expertise.
“Although I was passionate about it and believed it was possible from the theory, I really needed an objective, third-party view on it and I thought the best way to get that was through the aviation or aeronautical research group of a leading university, because they’ve got the very best minds and appreciation of the principles of flight. As a founder you’ve also got an emotional attachment to the idea, so you need someone to be that critical eye.”
“A lot of great companies started out with just one person in a shed or garage; but to get it from that stage and into the mainstream, you need more people involved and that’s where SIP came in.”
Unlocking new use cases
Through SIP, Graham and team began a fruitful collaboration with the group of Dr Alistair John, University Teacher in Aerospace Engineering in the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Sheffield.
Together with postgraduate research students, the collaborative team was able to improve upon and test AV8OR’s prototype hybrid quadcopter.
Furthermore, they were able to develop a specialised drone capable of carrying out radiation mapping, with the addition of a smart wing embedded with sensors. This type of drone could potentially be used in the monitoring of working nuclear sites, in decommissioning or in disaster response.
“What we’ve done through this project is push forward a new innovation that unlocks a number of use cases that simply can’t be achieved with current platforms. Radiation monitoring is one and offshore wind farm inspection could be another.”
The latter application is a particularly interesting one, Graham adds. Currently this is done using boats, which often set out in very rough seas, dock at the turbines, then launch aerial drones to inspect more closely. If a drone could simply fly from the coast, then hover when it arrives at the turbines, that would be a huge advantage.
Finding a market edge through collaboration
Graham says that the company is now well positioned to move into the next phase of its development. He also plans to explore more potential academic collaborations and apply for grants.
“It’s been a great experience, a great thing to do. I think more companies should take the opportunity to engage with academia – you can find that sweet spot between business and research which can result in something that gives you a market edge.”
Graham says he spoke with Dr John’s team on a weekly basis, with regular team catch-up meetings. The university also produced a final report, which they all reviewed together to understand the findings.
The SIP project also brought some tangible and lasting benefits to the university, as Dr John explains:
“It provided a great opportunity for the University to collaborate closely with a local, innovative business working on drone technologies. The project allowed students to take part in some real-world engineering, working in an exciting field and on state-of-the-art technology. The SIP project really enthused the students and on the back of it a new extra-curricular student drone society has been started along with multiple dissertation projects collaborating with AV8OR.”
Graham and the AV8OR team are now looking at developing software that would allow drones to fly completely autonomously, reacting in real-time to their environment, without the need for a central operator. Together with the hybrid flight technology, this has the potential to genuinely transform many industrial sectors and even society more generally. As they say, watch this (air) space.