The Volanti from Sydney-based Carbonix is a carbon composite drone with a 2.7-m (9-ft) wingspan that uses a multirotor system for VTOL, then transitions to horizontal flight as a push-prop fixed-wing once in the air. It flies for over two hours on electric power or seven with a gas pusher, and Carbonix hopes it will fill the industrial-grade niche in between hobby and military UAV gear.
The UAV business is currently a world of extremes. At one end, you've got hobby-grade consumer gear, which has improved dramatically in the last couple of years, but at the end of the day, there's no standard of reliability.
At the other end, you've got the military gear – tough, rugged, dependable to a life and death level under all sorts of conditions, but it carries the kind of price tag you can only really come at with government tax money.
There are no real standards for industrial-grade drones yet, but it's a continually growing market as all sorts of companies in all sorts of areas start to discover the power and potential of unmanned aerial systems.
One company that's working to fill that niche is Australia's Carbonix, which started out as an advanced composite manufacturer in the yachting world, and is now applying its knowledge of lightweight carbon composites to aerial systems.
At this year's Australian International Air Show, Carbonix displayed its new flagship UAV system, the Volanti. It's a large, fixed-wing, autopilot-driven hybrid drone that uses quadcopter-style rotors for VTOL, then transitions to horizontal flight using a pusher prop.
The combination allows an impressive flight time of two hours with a decent-sized 2-kg (4.4-lb) payload and fully electric drive, or as much as seven hours or a 6 kg (13.2-lb) payload when the pusher prop is driven by a gasoline engine.
The Volanti was developed out of a catapult-launched fixed-wing drone Carbonix developed for a Spanish defence contractor, D3 Applied Technologies, after Business Manager Cortney Thomson found that civilian clients were looking for something with more flexible launch options.
"When we reached out to commercial industries, they said 'well that's great, but we don't always have a long runway. We could be launching in forest areas or adverse terrain.'" Thomson says. "VTOL was really required. So in about 2014 we started looking at putting the VTOL pods on this airframe.
"The challenge is that powering the VTOL pods and getting it up in the air is really energy intensive. But because this airframe without the avionics in it is only 4 kg (8.8 lb), it's incredibly light, and because we build and layer it all by hand, you can have some components that are very strong, with multiple layers, and others can be very light, with very few layers. Every part is optimized for efficiency."
"It's a big bird," continues Thomson. "The airframe ready to fly has a wingspan of 2.74 m (8.9 ft) and is 1.95 m (6.4 ft) in length. But within five minutes it breaks down to fit in a 163 x 100 x 45 cm (64 x 39.4 x 17.7 in) carry case that's easy enough for one person to move around. And its size allows it to operate reliably in winds up to 60 km/h (37 mph).
"It's fully autonomous. You plan out a mission with mission planning software, you have a ground control system which is just a new laptop, it doesn't have to be anything more than that. And there is a remote control if you want to switch to manual mode. But you need these things to be precise.
"There are other multirotors out there with both VTOL and cruise, you blink and there's another YouTube video of someone who's done some testing. But as far as we're aware, there's nothing else that's been properly tested and launched. I haven't been able to find anything in my research – mind you it's usually desktop research – that you can go out and buy today, unless you're talking about military grade.
"We're trying to fit this middle commercial range between consumer and military. We don't want hobby level batteries. We don't want hobby-level ESCs (Electronic Speed Controllers). We want the good stuff, and that's where the real gap is. Componentry is either hobby grade, or it's unique IP for military drones.
"I'd say 50 percent of it right now is off-the-shelf, and 50 percent is bespoke. So our flight control system, mission planning software, is designed by Bask Aerospace specifically for us. But we use open-source Pixhawk 2 for the autopilot, because that can handle the transition between VTOL and forward flight, which is complex.
"So while right now it's 50 percent off-the-shelf and 50 percent bespoke, we want to get to a point where it's all bespoke. That commercial-grade avionics and electronics just doesn't exist right now. And it might. In six months' time, somebody with a lot of knowledge about that sort of thing could come out of the woodwork, and we'd be delighted to see that."
A Volanti UAV system isn't cheap, coming in somewhere around the AU$150,000 (~US$114,000) ballpark before customization. But that's for a fully tested, integrated, long endurance UAV system with a hand-built advanced composite airframe and a flexible VTOL launch system. A machine suitable for accurate surveying and mapping, mining and infrastructure assessment, agriculture and emergency response covering large areas over long mission times.
The applications are out there, and the commercial world can see the benefits of industrial-grade UAV tools. It'll be interesting to see what sort of machinery and standards develop in this space over the next few years.