Top Flight, a startup out of Malden, Mass., says it has the answer to the range problem that restricts small UAS flight time in the form of hybrid propulsion. The company’s drones in development carry gasoline-powered generators that charge their onboard batteries in flight. The result, COO John Polo says, is a drone with six 26-inch rotors that can fly more than two hours at a time in gusts of up to 35 miles per hour, while carrying payloads such as cameras, infrared sensors, or crop-spraying equipment.
“The concept of a hybrid engine is an onboard generator,” Polo says. “It’s generating juice all the time. It’s generating juice for the motors, and it’s generating juice for the electronics and whatever is on the payloa
Top Flight is barely a year old and employs fewer than 10 people. But, Polo says, what separates his people is their pedigree. The market is now full of companies like DJI, 3D Robotics, and Parrot that build hobbyist-grade RC aircraft and are trying to make them viable for commercial use. “The manufacturers that manufacture from that bottom-up thinking don’t understand how to make something really safe and redundant, let alone try to fly it beyond the capacity of a battery,” he says.
By contrast, Polo’s Top Flight team is made up of engineers who came from working on military drones, and the military has already tackled the challenges of extended flight and carrying heavy payloads. “We’re following in those footsteps, but making those commercially viable at a much lower price,” Polo says.
Top Flight is aiming for a price point between the $1,000 that DJI charges for a Phantom 2 with camera and the $100,000 price tag for a typical high-end drone that runs on gasoline-only propulsion. “At $19,000, you’ll be able to carry five pounds for two and a half hours, fly 100 miles semi- or fully autonomously, and have gads of redundancy built into it,” Polo says.
The startup is working with clients who want the first production models for industrial applications such as oil pipeline inspection. The company plans to have prototypes ready for customer testing by the end of the summer, and more refined versions for customers by the end of the fall. While this first version will carry five pounds, Top Flight is planning a 30-pound-payload model. “At some point, when it’s called for, we’ll build something at 200 pounds of payload,” Polo says.
Drone traffic control
Batteries are just one piece of the technological puzzle needed to be solved for widespread commercial drone use. Another big challenge for widespread commercial drone use will be managing all the traffic. Imagine potentially hundreds or even thousands of drone flights in a given area at once as delivery drones compete with flying traffic cams and police drones for airspace.
SkyWard, a startup based in Portland, OR, is working on drone dispatching and routing software that would treat the flying machines like packets in the Internet, routing each unit to its destination via the optimal path while avoiding collisions. SkyWard is planning a series of demos through its Urban SkyWays Project, first in London this May and then in Vancouver in June, Nevada in July, and in Portland in September.
Another company vying for dominance in drone traffic control is $3.3 billion defense contractor Exelis, which plans to add drone tracking to the ADS-B system it built for the FAA and that is already in place for tracking manned aircraft. Exelis’ program manager for unmanned aerial systems, Christian Ramsey, tells PM that his company will officially announce its drone-tracking offerings in April and demo them at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International conference in Atlanta in May.
All of which will be overkill unless drones can fly far enough and carry enough weight to be commercially useful on a large scale, which is why Top Flight is focused on making that possible. If the future really does look like a thousand commercial drones doing business all over the country, maybe we’ll have hybrid tech to thank for it.
Source: Popular Mechanics