Bizarre-looking cargo drone concept has unique propulsion method

Professional Engineering

'At first glance, the cargo drone has an unorthodox design. At second glance, it is even stranger.'
'At first glance, the cargo drone has an unorthodox design. At second glance, it is even stranger.'

Before the Wright brothers took off in 1903, people daydreamed about countless ways to achieve heavier-than-air flight, from flapping wings to corkscrew rotors.

After the successful trials at Kitty Hawk in North Carolina, the template became clearer. Engineers and designers knew the basic principles of how to get their craft airborne, and many of the features we recognise in today’s planes would gradually emerge over the next years and decades. The 20th century saw extensive experimentation and incredible progress, but for the most part there was little reason to completely reinvent the wheel – or the propeller. 

This makes it all the more unusual when an entirely new design comes along, such as this unnamed cargo drone system from Austrian propulsion specialist CycloTech and Japanese delivery company Yamato Holdings. The concept uses a new propulsion system aimed at precision landing in confined areas and flight in windy conditions – both key features for urban airborne logistics. But will it ever take off? 

Unorthodox design 

At first glance, the cargo drone has an unorthodox design. At second glance, it is even stranger. Instead of helicopter-style rotors, ducted fans or any other recognisable system, the electric craft has six ‘CycloRotors’. 

Looking something like barrels with half of their staves removed, the CycloRotors are designed to offer 360° thrust vectoring. According to a paper written by the two firms, they are based on the same principle as the Voith Schneider Propeller, a highly manoeuvrable marine propulsion system. As with the marine counterpart, the angle of each of the CycloRotor’s blades can be altered to direct thrust while the rotor structure spins. 

“The compact design, and direct and instant control of magnitude and direction of thrust, offer a natural, stable transition from hover to forward flight and superior manoeuvrability,” says a CycloTech and Yamato announcement. “The unique characteristics of CycloRotors give vehicle manufacturers unprecedented freedom in designing aircraft and drones.”

Those unique characteristics were exploited in the design of the unmanned eVTOL concept – compact, capable of carrying a 45kg payload up to 40km, and able to land in areas just 5m in diameter. The omni-directional thrust should also provide stability in crosswinds of up to 36 knots (18m/s), claims the announcement.

Last-mile delivery

The other half of the design is focused on the detachable cargo pods, developed by Yamato. The Pupa701 pod is designed to allow staff on the ground to quickly and safely load packages for delivery. 

“All operations can be handled from one side, be it loading and unloading the payload, complete swap of the pod, or charging or exchanging batteries,” says the announcement. “It ensures flexible, fast, safe and ergonomic handling, minimising hazards to the operator or the vehicle.” 

Overall, the system is aimed at efficient ‘last-mile’ deliveries. The partners based the design on ‘extensive’ calculations, wind-tunnel testing, and the first flights of a technology demonstrator, but it is unclear if they will build a full-scale prototype. 

It also remains to be seen if regulators and the public will ever welcome autonomous airborne deliveries. A 2019 IMechE poll found that only 23% of adults supported drone deliveries, with 45% saying that thefts were the top concern.  

Introducing a new propulsion system seems unlikely to convince an already sceptical population. But, with a persistent drive towards online deliveries and automation of logistics processes, perhaps the CycloTech-Yamato design could be in demand if the public mood changes in years to come. 

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Content published by Professional Engineering does not necessarily represent the views of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers.


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