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'Project CONDOR' is the codename given to a heavy-lift cargo drone concept developed in partnership with Australian Aviation Industries, specirfically to address the needs expressed by the Australian Armed Forces, including Ground Army and Navy, for an all-electric, large-format, cargo drone capable of transporting up to 150kg of materiel (eg, food, water and medical supplies) or a single passsenger (eg, an injured soldier in full battle gear).
Sponsored by the Australian Army and funded by a Defence Innovation Hub (DIH) research grant, the project scope extended to exploring market opportunities in both defence (specifically, materiel and personnel transportation only; ie, non-weaponised applications) and non-military applications (including emergency response, humanitarian aid and remote medical operations 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' project.
1 - To research and validate key enabling technologies proposed by Amatek and our development partner, A.A.I. (Australian Aerospace Industries), including:
2 - To investigate military and non-military markets and identify near, medium and longer term opportunities for a quadcopter cargo drone.
3 - To investigate compliance regimes in target markets (eg AU CASA, US FAA and EU EASA) and develop a compliance program, including recommendations regarding engaging with global standards and industry development groups.
4 - To develop a business plan that addresses strategic partnerships, engineering activities, resources, milestones and capital costs required to get to TRL9; as well as potential early stage revenue generation opportunities.
The following were deemed key requirements by Defence stakeholders from Army, Air Force and Navy.
- Shall be able to operate in terrestrial applications 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 ship.
- 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.
- 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.
- Shall be able to fly for 2 hours/100kms on a single charge.
- Shall be powered by rechargeable batteries and/or PEM-FCs (Hydrogen Fuel Cells).
Because few of the enabling technologies required for the CONDOR concept are commercially available, a number of major and highly complex issues needed to be resolved, including:
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.
- slower cruise speed due to propellers not being at 90 degrees to the airflow.
- lower range due to slower horizontal airspeeds achievable.
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.
Developing electric propulsion solutions capable of delivering 300-360kg of total thrust in ducted assemblages of less than 1 metre in diameter was the design goal.
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.
Designing a modular airframe that would accept multiple electronics packages, as well as could be shipped in a compacted/folded format.
While many details of the project are commercially sensitive, some of the notable outcomes achieved include the following:
Devised a compact, ducted, coaxial (twin, counter-rotating) fan propulsion system comprised of:
- An aerodynamic duct of less than 1 metre in overall diameter.
- Multi-bladed fans to generate higher thrust at lower RPMs.
- Cruise thrust of 70-75kg per duct achievable at 2000rpm.
- Climb and sprint thrust of 150kg (max) per duct achievable for high speed climbs and evasive manoeuvres/sprints.
Conceived a hydrid axial+radial motor design to provide the same power in a lower profile compared to COTS electric drives.
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).
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.
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.
© 2021 Amatek Design (Australia)