The drone, made from a cardboard-like material called foamboard, measures 6.4m corner-to-corner and weighs 24.5kg, just below the 25kg weight limit that requires further authorisation to fly from the Civil Aviation Authority.
The Giant Foamboard Quadcopter (GFQ), as the drone is known, has four arms that are formed of a series of hollow box structures, which can be removed for transportation.
The project aimed to use an alternative low-cost material for lightweight aerospace structures that is more environmentally friendly than conventional carbon fibre.
Dan Koning, a Manchester research engineer who led the design and build of the vehicle, said: “Foamboard is an interesting material to work with. Used in the right way we can create complex aerospace structures where every component is designed to be only as strong as it needs to be – there is no room for over-engineering here.
“Thanks to this design discipline, and after extensive background research, we can say with confidence that we have built the largest quadcopter drone in the world.”
While the drone was developed purely as a proof-of-concept exercise, future iterations of the vehicle could be designed to carry large payloads over short distances, or to be used as a drone ‘mothership’ in air-to-air docking experiments.
The quadcopter was built from sheets of 5mm-thick foamboard, which has a foam core and paper skin. The sheets were laser-cut to size and assembled into the 3D structure by hand, using only hot melt glue.
GFQ is powered by four electric motors running off a 50V battery pack. It also has an on-board flight control system, and can fly autonomously.
The first flight took place on 5 July at the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre, during a workshop week that featured university teams from around the UK demonstrating their technology developments.
Manchester professor Bill Crowther said: “Working with foamboard provides a unique learning opportunity for students to experiment with innovative structural designs. Although the material is strong for its weight, it requires significant engineering skill to exploit its structural potential. Ultimately, with this design, you are holding up 25kg of aircraft with just a few strategically placed pieces of paper – that’s the art of the possible.”
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