Our Drone Team

small drone on a table with blue propellers

An Ambitious Vision

The UNSW Drone Team was initially formed in August 2018, with a vision that was the culmination of all the ambition and imagination that 5 sleep-deprived, coffee-addicted undergraduate engineers could muster. The vision? Creating a drone that could fly in the Martian atmosphere, map the local environment and interact with the rover built by the Off-World Robotics Team. The inspiration behind this concept came in no small part from NASA’s announcement of their development of a small unmanned helicopter (shown below) that would explore Mars, alongside the agency’s 2020 rover mission.

NASA's helicopter drone, a small drone with 2 propelling wings that turn about its centre, standing on a yellow table on 4 thin legs

NASA’s small unmanned helicopter

Naturally, flying in such a distant and inhospitable environment meant dealing with some important challenges, particularly:

  1. Martian atmospheric density is 1-2% of Earth’s atmosphere at sea level, comprising primarily of carbon monoxide
  2. Martian gravity is roughly 38% of Earth’s gravitational force.

After several hours of frantic googling, it became apparent that we lacked both NASA’s scientists and budget to design and test a design that would operate in these conditions. (Honestly I’m not sure why it took us hours and not minutes to figure that out, but anyway). So rather than spending thousands of non-existent dollars on testing the drone in a custom built vacuum chamber, we decided to replicate those conditions by attempting to fly the drone as high as 100,000 feet above sea level, where the air density was similar to the Martian atmosphere

With that target created, we set about trying to figure out what our first steps would be in achieving that target. More googling ensued, and if it taught us anything, it was that no one does outlandish, homemade contraptions better than the Russians. So naturally we looked to Russian drone enthusiast and world record holder Denis Koryakin as a guiding light. With his drone, Denis set a world record by reaching an altitude of 10,000 metres (roughly 33,000 ft) and had footage to show too. We ultimately decided that this was a little too ambitious for the team’s first prototype, and so we lowered our initial aim to a more manageable altitude of 6,000 metres.

Initial Design

For the design process, each team member chose a part of the drone that they would design, with the idea that the drone would be modular in design. Within a few weeks and several redesigns, a final prototype design (shown below) was made on Solidworks. As shown in the picture below, the main body housed 2 levels of compartments. The top compartment was designed to house the flight controller and other major electronics for the drone (essentially the drone’s brains) while the bottom was designed to house the batteries. The top and sides of the drone were designed to be made of removable panels to allow for easy accessibility. The arms of the drone were designed to be replaceable and be attached to the body using bolts. This meant that the drone could be easily modified or repaired if necessary. The entire drone was intended to be 3D-printed using polylactic acid, a strong and light polymer, as it meant that the drone would be relatively cheap to make and still be light and durable.

The initial 3D drone design, a simple grey drone shell with 4 outgoing lines for the 'wings' and two boxed compartments in the middle to hold batteries and components

Our initial 3D CAD design of the drone

Reality Check

Once we crunched the numbers though, we realised that the design was too costly, and there were some serious concerns around the compatibility between some of the parts and the flight time provided by the Lipo battery. Moreover, the team recognised that a drone designed for operation in Mars would remain a proof of concept with few real world applications, at least for the foreseeable future. As engineers, we felt that a more localised and applicable solution would be both more engaging and technically challenging for the team, so the plans for a Mars drone were put on hold indefinitely. Whilst the team discussed on what long term project the team would focus on next, we decided to extend our collective experience with drone design and assembly by buying and assembling a drone kit with premade components, shown below.

A completed simple model drone and controller

The assembled drone and controller

It’s 2019! New Year, New Resolutions… Right?

With the start of the new year, and all of the resources and new members that come with it, the team decided to take stock and re-evaluate the plan for the coming year. As of the time of writing, half of the team is still on holiday, frantically bingeing as many shows as possible before uni starts in 2019, while the other half is knee-deep in drone parts and tears (Let’s just say that the entire team wishes the kit came with an IKEA manual).

When the team comes back in full force next month, first on the agenda will be deciding what particular project will be undertaken for the coming year. One of the ideas is to develop an autonomous system on a drone that can scan the underlying landscape, identify potential hazards and conduct a safe landing. Another suggestion is the development of a hydrogen fuel cell powered drone, which would be the first of its kind in the world. Regardless of what project the team will ultimately undertake, rest assured that the project will have real industry applications.

So stay tuned!

The Drone Team

Written by Lucas Way and Lachlan Chow

Edited by Lexman Palanirajan

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