They discuss their achievements to date, challenges encountered and the lessons they have learnt in their quest to design and build an aircraft that could operate in a humanitarian aid mission.
Q: Could you briefly tell us about your team – any interesting facts or background information?
Project ICAV (PI): Our team is entirely made up of Imperial College London Aeronautical Engineering students, and has inherited the diverse and international nature of our college. Our team members come from all over the globe, all the way over from New Zealand and Singapore, to London itself.
Another interesting thing to note is that unlike most student engineering projects, our team almost entirely consists of students in their first and second years who are participating in the project solely out of interest (as the project does not count as part of the course). This has resulted in a fresh and highly motivated team who truly want to explore the limits of engineering theory.
Team ANTS (TA): Team ANTS has 14 undergraduate students from different majors – Mechanical Engineering, Electrical Engineering and Technology Management. The team originally comprised of 4 members and over time recruited members based on their performance and dedication to do something different. Ever since the team was formed, it actively took part in national level competitions and won a few – ranging from model ship propulsion contests to “Robo-soccer” and “Robo-race” competitions.
We are frequently asked about why we named the team “ANTS”. The answer is simple – no matter how minute these creatures may seem, as a team, they get massive amounts of work done. They are organised; they value teamwork; and they are not intimidated by the size of their workload. Coming from a country like Bangladesh, it isn’t always easy to have access to a lot of resources and intel. Yet through all the distress and challenges, the spirit and the common goal to get our UAS in the air was unharmed; and we believe this is how we will reach new horizons.
Q: Could you tell us about the design and innovation aspect of your aircraft?
PI: Our aircraft is designed to fulfil two major design goals: simplicity, and low mass. We have based our aircraft on a modular construction, where all components have been designed to attach onto a central carbon fibre longeron that runs along the length of the aircraft. This results in an extremely high structural efficiency as the load paths run through a single member.
Furthermore, as a simple carbon fibre tube is used as a longeron, the manufacturing time is greatly reduced. All major components such as flight control systems, the wing, and the tail are attached to this tube by means of 3D printed joints. These joints allow for rapid assembly and disassembly, making transportation and maintenance of the airframe incredibly easy. In summary, we have been able to produce an extremely simple and lightweight, yet a strong and reliable design that has several practical benefits as well. Our empty weight fraction is approximately 50%, a testament to the efficiency of the airframe design.
TA: Freedom-71 (F-71) is a fixed wing UAS which utilises a double propeller configuration and a conventional tail boom. Considering the energy consumption, flight time and redundancy, fixed wing configuration was chosen over rotary wing configuration. The manufacturing technology available to the team was given high priority while designing the UAS. The team also crafted a custom CNC foam-cutter along with custom software for precise manufacturing.
The UAS was designed with minimal interlocking parts in order to make the manufacturing and assembly process as simple as possible. Assembly of the F-71 is much akin to a jigsaw, with minimal use of nails and nut-bolts allowing increased portability. The wing has three parts, armed with an easy lock mechanism for minimum assembly time. The whole tail is individually removable and all of these parts can be replaced if required. For the package delivery box, the team decided to utilise jute, taking into account that the jute industry is one of the most historically and culturally important industries of Bangladesh.
Specific parts of the UAS were designed with topology optimisation which ensured the increased weight ratio to maximise capacity for carrying the payload. Considering the limitation of test flight zones software, this was used in in a looped simulation for verification of the algorithm helping successful test flight simulations avoiding crashes. The UAS design was optimised to score maximum points in core mission tasks and an algorithm was developed to drop packages with high accuracy.
Q: How could your UAV be used to help vulnerable people and fight against COVID-19?
PI: Although not our initial design case, we strongly believe that our UAV could be adapted to reduce the impact of the COVID-19 crisis, especially in rural and remote areas with an insufficient road network. The fixed wing configuration of the UAV provides it with a superior range, and if adapted to higher energy density Li-ion batteries (as compared to the currently used Li-Po batteries), our UAV can comfortably achieve a range of approximately 15 km while carrying a 3 kg payload. Given the current shortages of masks and PPE kits for medical staff, our UAV can be easily deployed in rural areas where distribution of these items might be difficult due to poor road networks. Furthermore, our UAV can be used to carry test samples from a rural hospital to the testing lab quickly without degrading the quality of the sample.
The immense flexibility afforded by our chosen configuration is what allows our UAV to carry out so many roles. As the payload can be carried externally (and is encased in an aerodynamic fairing made out of cardboard), there is no restriction on the volume and shape of the payload (as long as they are reasonable). Thus, the UAV can be configured for any role by the operator very rapidly.
The robustness and ease of maintenance afforded by our simple design would also prove to be invaluable if it were to be used for delivery purposes in rural areas. Thus, the design considerations that were made for the purposes of the competition are still equally valid for this new use case.
TA: One of the major challenges faced during this global pandemic of COVID-19 is the testing of potential patients and Bangladesh is one of the countries where tests are taking place at a very negligible rate due to the infrastructural inadequacy. There are only 56 testing labs most of which are based in the capital and other major cities permitted by the government to test the cases in a country of almost 170 million people, which has so far tested only 287,064 samples from April. Although the infrastructural development of the labs and training medical personnel cannot be achieved over a short time period, quicker sample collection from remote areas to the nearby labs could be a life-saving initiative.
Our fixed wing UAS is capable of flying at a higher speeds than multi-rotor UAS’ and can play an important role by collecting medical samples in the fastest possible time. Designed to drop delivery packages of 20×6.5×14 cm3 for the Institution’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems Challenge, the UAS is capable of carrying a number of medical sample containers from any remote location with an operator and to drop it off to the nearby labs. Battery allocation space in the UAS can be increased by modifying the package storage space for longer flights. The UAS’s parachute-aided package dropping mechanism makes sure that the samples are delivered without any damage whatsoever. In a country where population density is the highest, patients travelling miles to test for COVID-19 can escalate the number of cases in other zones; thus our Freedom-71 UAS can play a significant role in fighting COVID-19.
Q: What are the key skills you learnt from this project and what were the challenges you faced?
PI: The key takeaway from this project was the importance of team work, and having good coordination among the various sub teams. The entire project focussed on different people working to achieve the same goal – thus it was extremely important for every team member to be in sync with each other. Working with different people, from various backgrounds with different interests, was definitely a challenge. However, this allowed the team to explore a multitude of ideas and methodologies, which we believe has led to an extremely efficient and effective design.
TA: The most important key skill that the entire team learnt is how to conduct research or find relevant information about certain aspects of the project – be it designs aspects or even insurance policies. Members of the team saw a rise in self-confidence over the course of the year as they made progress in all sectors of the project. The personal gain through an experience like this is unparalleled – some learnt more about management, some improved their rapid decision-making skills; some worked on their negotiation abilities.
Needless to say, everyone learnt more about themselves and each other. This helped to strengthen team morale and further improve teamwork to achieve common goals. The biggest challenge the team faced was the lack of expertise in Unmanned Aircraft System field in the country. It was difficult to get access to certain products that was necessary for the manufacturing of the UAS. Nonetheless, with the help of the academic counsel and the outstanding dedication of each of the team members, ANTS was able to overcome any challenge that it faced throughout its journey so far.
To recognise the efforts of teams to date, the UAS Challenge Organising Committee has agreed to host a virtual ceremony at 2:30pm BST, 19 June 2020, to present teams with the following Awards for:
Media and Engagement
Highest-Placed New Entrant.