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In 2015, Sander Smeets and Maarten Reinders started DronesLab with the goal to provide custom drone based solutions in a quickly growing market.
Sander is an entrepreneur with 20 years of programming experience, Maarten is an engineer with 30 years of hardware and electronics experience. Together they have 30 years of RC and UAV experience.
When DronesLab started, there were 3 types of UAV's being used in this rapidly growing market: Multirotors (quadcopters), Fixed wing's (airplanes) and Single rotors (heli's). Each of these had their merits but also had considerable drawbacks;
- Multirotors are simple to operate but, extremely limited in their range and payload capacity.
- Fixed wings are efficient and have great range, but hard to operate, needing constant calibration and requiring a runway for takeoff and landing.
- Heli's have good payload capacity and medium range, but are hard to fly autonomously, dangerous and very prone to damage
For the types of projects DronesLab wanted to develop we had set the following requirements;
- 100Km range
- 1Kg payload capacity (98% of all payloads fall in this category)
- Easy to operate: should not require special training
- Fully electric
- Industrial quality
- Fully autonomous
From these requirements it became clear that none of the regular UAV's sufficed and that a hybrid solution should be found. VTOL fixed wing's were starting to appear and they seemed to leverage all the positive aspects to meet most of the requirements, so we set out to find a VTOL platform to serve as the basis for our projects. We quickly found that although there was a lot of buzz around this new type of vehicle nobody was actually producing a VTOL vehicle that came near the specs we had set. So after much deliberation we decided to undertake one of the largest projects we had ever endeavored: develop a new class of UAV systems. We realized that developing a commercial grade system would require such a large investment that it would not be feasible to keep this confined to our own projects. For several reasons we did not want DronesLab to become a UAV hardware company so early 2016 we launched Vertical Technologies.
The first step was to test the hypothesis that a VTOL fixed wing UAV would be feasible and remain efficient so we designed our first VTOL vehicle to test this. Using a Volantex Ranger-Ex that we outfitted with 2 carbon booms under the wings, 4 additional motors and ESCs and 2 flight controllers we headed to our flying field. Using 2 transmitters one of us was controlling the quadcopter part while the other controlled the fixed wing. The results were amazing, the vehicle completely stable in both quadcopter and fixed wing mode, transitioned smoothly between these modes and there was no significant loss of efficiency.
The second step was to achieve the first basic flight control using a single autopilot. After researching the state of development for several autopilots Sander joined the PX4 Pro development team and became one of the key contributors to VTOL support and its autonomous capabilities. At the very early stages of development, we were proud to have flown the very first fully autonomous VTOL mission on PX4. The Volantex ranger conversion remained in use to for software testing. As we saw no commercial potential in this airframe we released it to the community with this build log. We are pleased to see several hobbyists have completed this build and it is still actively being used.
While the VTOL software became more mature we moved to the third step; selecting an airframe that matched our requirements. We decided to use an existing and proven airframe for the fixed wing portion of the vehicle. After many trials and and candidates we settled on the Skywalker X-8 delta wing airframe. This airframe is the vehicle of choice for many professional drone companies that engage in mapping or any other type of long range missions. The reasons for selecting this airframe were;
- Its EPO frame is ideal to customize, light weight and impact resistant
- it has a large payload bay located very close to the CoG
- It's easy to transport and can cope very well with wind in quadcopter mode because it does not have a tail section.
- It is highly efficient
Our first VTOL conversion of the Skywalker X-8 was successful;
Although the EPO components themselves are an ideal match the other components did not meet our high quality standards. We started designing new components not only for a more robust VTOL system but also we replaced all standard components that came with this airframe by our own industrial grade designs. Using 3D printing we prototyped many of the components before we sent them to our industrial design partner to re-design the components to meet our high standards. To meet our requirements we needed to design our own blind mate connector system using mil-spec Amphenol connector pins. We collaborated with Drotek to design a version of the Dropix flight controller that would have an ideal fit in the electronics bay. We worked with Mauch electronics to get a power module that could handle the current drawn by our system. We even designed our own brand of industrial quality brushless motors to achieve the requirements of quality, power and efficiency.
The next step was to create a system that was truly easy to operate. During the development we noticed the single worst point of failure and most unreliable sensor that the system required was the airspeed sensor. After having tested nearly every available sensor we concluded that our goal would not be achieved with such a sensor. It required specialized calibration before every flight, they were notoriously unreliable and inaccurate and a single grain of sand could bring the sensor down. After a massive amount of development, testing and tuning we managed to eliminate the need for this sensor by combining input from a range of other sensors. The result was a reliable method of autonomous flight that can handle all the aspects that were once dependent on an airspeed sensor.
The PX4 VTOL development was incorporated in UAVenture's AirRails system. A commercially supported autopilot with a truly user friendly groundstation. From the start of both our endeavors we have maintained a partnership with UAVenture and proudly offer this commercial grade system as the standard software on our DeltaQuad Pro.
The last step in the development of the DeltaQuad was to incorporate advanced safety, security and performance. We have pioneered a unique way of securing communication between the drone and the groundstation by using the cellular network to stream telemetry and video over a secured VPN connection. The use of this system also gives the DeltaQuad Pro virtually unlimited telemetry range. We took the software development a step further by designing a secondary onboard computer that runs our DeltaQuad Safety and Performance System (DSPS). In this system we have integrated virtually everything a skilled operator would perform before and during a flight. DSPS verifies every mission based on weather conditions, wind direction, terrain elevation data, battery status, vehicle performance, ADS-B transponder data, internal systems status, full sensor checks and total mission feasibility. It further monitors every flight and is capable of dynamically tuning the vehicles performance. It will also failsafe potentially failing hardware and intelligently cope with changing conditions. At the moment of writing DSPS is still under active development but has already proven to be the last piece of the puzzle to fully comply with our requirements.
The journey took us more than a year of full time dedication, several hundred flights and enormous investments that we funded ourselves to reach our goal. We relentlessly stuck to our core requirements and principals of industrial quality. And on April 28th, 2017 we achieved our milestone, a 100Km flight carrying a 1Kg payload
The minor publications mentioned in this article have been the only public outreach we did. We never wanted to become known based on future promises and unclear deadlines. That is why we have waited with the public announcement of our Vertical Technologies until we were capable of delivering. The DeltaQuad is the final product and we proudly stand by it as the platform that meets the requirements for the next generation of autonomous UAV's