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Case Study #5: 'Project CONDOR' Heavy-lift eVTOL Cargo Drone

About CONDOR

'Project CONDOR' is the codename given to our heavy-lift cargo drone concept, which was conceived as a platform for autonomously transporting up to 150kg of materiel (food, water, medical supplies) or a single passsenger weighing up to 120kg.

Sponsored by the Australian Army and funded by a Defence Innovation Hub (DIH) research grant, the project included considerations of non-military applications such as emergency response, humanitarian aid and remote medical clinic support.

Amatek was successful in demonstrating the unique mix of collaborative research, complex engineering, and creative 'what next' thinking required to tackle this 'deep tech', immensely complex project, which encompassed multiple leading edge fields, ranging from advanced electrical systems engineering, to multi-sensor fusion, to AI-assisted autonomous systems control.


The Brief

The following were key requirements for the concept to gain traction in the sectors targetted, including Defence, for a supplementary materiel transport drone:

  • Operation

    - Shall be able to operate in terrestrial appliations from unprepared surfaces, including grassy, scrubby, muddy and uneven ground.

    - Should be able to operate optionally from the rear helideck of a Naval vessel or commercial cargo shi.

    - Shall not require any mechanical launching or capture systems for take-off/landing (ie should be a self contained VTOL system).

    - Shall be field programmable with minimal operator training, via a simple UI requiring only a destination GPS location be set.

  • Payload
  • - Shall be able to transport up to 150kg of materiel, comprised primarily of food, water and medical supplies.

    - Should be able to transport a single person weighing up to 120kg; either seated, or in a horizontal position, potentially strapped to a back board.

  • Flight Duration
  • - Shall be able to fly for 2 hours/100kms on a single charge.

  • Power Source

    - Shall be powered by rechargeable batteries and/or PEM-FCs (Hydrogen Fuel Cells).


  • Issues

    With most of the key enabling technologies not commercially available, a number of major and highly complex issues needed to be resolved, including:


  • Quadcopter Configuration
  • Compared to a quadplane, a quadcopter offers the advantages of:
    - a smaller footprint due to the absence of any large lifting wing/s, so can operate from smaller spaces such as narrow streets, rooftops, and the deck of a ship.
    - less mechanical complexity to achieve VTOL and forward flight, so should require less maintenance and be less prone to failures. - less aerodynamic instability resulting from affect of crosswinds on lifting surfaces during hover/climb/descent.

    Disadvantages are:
    - slower cruise speed due to propellers not being at 90 degrees to the airflow.
    - lower range due to slower horizontal airspeeds achievable.

  • Hybrid Electric Power
  • The design brief called for an evaluation of best-of-breed Lithium-based power cells and hydrogen (PEM) fuel cells, to determine if COTS solutions could be utilised, or custom engineered solutions would be required.

  • Ducted Propulsion
  • Developing electric propulsion solutions that could deliver 300-360kg of total thrust, but in ducted assemblages of less than 1 metre in diameter.

  • Autonomous Operation
  • Proposing a solution to achieve autonomous control, without a remote pilot in the loop, and in the absence of GPS and any external navigational aids or assist devices (eg ground-based automated air traffic management systems), required a fully self-contained 'seeing computer' able to make intelligent decisions using AI.

    While not so critical in non-military applications, in military use, where radio communications with remote pilots, or GPS signals, could be either blocked or subverted, antirely self-contained, high-reliability autonomous systems were considered a necessity.

    However, apart from there being no Level 5 Autonomous Autopilot system available at the time, there are additionally very few places in the world that permit drones with no Pilot-In-The-Loop (either autonomous, pilotless) to operate.

  • Airframe: Modular vs Fixed Format
  • Designing a modular airframe that would accept multiple electronics packages, as well as could be shipped in a compacted/folded format.


    Outcomes

    While many details of the project are commercially sensitive, some of the notable outcomes achieved include the following:


  • Ducted Coaxial Fan Propulsion
  • Devised a compact, ducted, coaxial (twin, counter-rotating) fan propuslions system comprised of:
    - An aerodynamic duct less than 1 metre in diameter.
    - A multi-bladed fan able to be produced via additive manufacturing processes.

    In partnership with a specialist CFD analysis team, determined the assemblage was able to generate up to 160kg of thrust, delivering a total maximum thrust able to lift heavier loads than the targetted 150kg for periods of less than 45 minutes.

  • Electric Motors
  • Conceived a hydrid axial+radial motor design to provide the same power in a lower profile compared to COTS electric drives.

  • Airframe
  • Developed a monocoque 'chassis' that was:
    - Easily reconfigurable for different payload types and EO&IR sensor suites
    - Easily folded or disassembled for transport by road (eg, in the tray of a utility vehicle or small truck) or in a small containerised storage unit (for transport on the deck of a ship).

    Design allowed for rapid setup and knock down, with setup times estimated at less than 20 minutes (including pre-flight checks).

  • Power
  • Reseached 'hybrid battery' concepts and:
    - Developed a custom-COTS solution to achieve better than 75 minutes flight duration.
    - Proposed a custom solution potentially able to achieve 90-120 minutes of flight time, fully laden.

  • Autonomous Control Systems
  • Explored a novel 'seeing computer' solution utilising COTS sub-systems that:
    - Lowered costs, while offering the processing capability required for a system capable of delviering Level 5 autonomous control.
    - supported multi-sensor inout/fusion, including high resolution ToF (Time of Flight) stereo cameras, multiple MEMS accelerometers and gyroscopes, and 3D LiDAR.





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