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IMechE UAS Challenge 2018 Grand Final preview

Joe Allen, UAS Challenge Steering Group

UAS Challenge 2017
UAS Challenge 2017

Engineering students from a variety of disciplines have been grafting all year to design and produce novel unmanned aircraft.

Now, with only one month to go until the Grand Final Fly-Off, teams are in the midst of functional and flight tests. It's a large task to compress design, manufacture and testing phases in to less than one year, not to mention squeezing them in between study for exams and dissertations, but this year the standard is expected to be higher than ever.

The IMechE UAS Challenge Grand Final event seems to have finally found itself a home on the west coast of Wales. After three years’ experimenting with different venues, this year, the two-day event returns to Snowdonia Aerospace Centre in Llanbedr. The location means it literally will be a long journey for the competing teams, but the great facilities and sunsets more than make up for that.

The IMechE has truly embraced the location. It is holding a dual-language short-story competition on the theme of unmanned search and rescue aircraft.  The goal is to inspire school children in the local area (where the main language is Welsh) to think about aspects such as innovative design features and technical details for different types of aircraft. In fact, promoting STEM subjects is the raison d'être for the competition, created with a view to inspire young people to seek careers in the STEM field. This year, for the first time, local schools have been invited to visit the competition, hosted by representatives of the IMechE Young Members Board.

Hybrid designs

It is not giving away too much inside information to say that teams this year have been more imaginative than ever regarding aircraft configuration. Most notably, the competition has seen its first hybrid entries (a fusion of fixed-wing and rotary-wing configurations), which have been welcomed by Chief Scrutineer, Rod Williams.

“Seeing the incorporation of non-conventional capabilities into the students concepts, such as tilt-rotor or transitional lift systems, is excellent. Delivering mission success, having made the necessary design trade-off decisions, without compromising the demanding competition requirements for flight control, structural and systems integrity and mission performance is quite a challenge for a sub-7kg all-up mass air vehicle!”

University of Southampton Team Horus has developed a ‘tailsitter' which can take-off vertically and transition in to forward flight, with lift then provided by fixed-wing surfaces. See how their first flight went!

Swansea University meanwhile, has been working on a ‘tiltrotor' type design. Team Leader Dominic Kay told us,

“Designing the tiltrotor drone has definitely been a challenge. The design stage required a lot of experimental testing, since it is not a design that the university teaches.”

A tiltrotor is designed to give a VTOL (Vertical Take-Off & Landing) capability, whilst maximising efficiency in forward flight, using conventional wings to provide 100% of the lift, with the propellers providing the forward thrust. During conversion back to VTOL mode, the proprotor axis is rotated through 90°, such that the propellers directly provide the vertical lift (and no forward speed is required). Despite experiencing some difficulties in developing its UAS, the Swansea team's efforts to overcome these issues were worth it. 

As Dominic said, “The reward of seeing it fly is immense.” 

Swansea and Southampton will be joined by previous winning universities, Bath and Loughborough, who have opted for more conventional fixed-wing designs. However, innovation is still strong, with Team Bath Drones developing reverse-thrust capabilities for rapid descents and short landings.

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