Carbonix, an Australian company, displayed their new flagship UAV system, the Volanti, at this year’s Australian International Air Show. The Volanti is a large, fixed-wing, autonomous hybrid drone that utilises vertical take-off and lift (VTOL) technology with its quadcopter-style rotors, then changes to horizontal flight using a pusher prop.
The Sydney-based company started out as an advanced composite manufacturer in the yacht industry, and is now applying its knowledge of lightweight carbon composites to aerial vehicles. The carbon composite Volanti has a wingspan of 2.7m (9 ft) and length of 1.95 m (6.4 ft), and can fly for more than 2 hours when powered by electric carry a total payload of 2 kg (4.4 lb), and 7 hours when running with a gas pusher, with a 6 kg (13.2 lb) payload, being able to operate reliably in winds up to 60 km/h (37 mph). It also has a take-off weight of 15 kg (33.1 lb).
The Volanti was developed using the catapult-launched fixed-wing drone that Carbonix developed for a Spanish defence contractor after Business Manager Cortney Thomson realized that civilian clients were looking for something with more flexible launch options. The main feature that Volanti possesses is that it can be broken down within 5 minutes to fit in a 163 x 100 x 45 cm (64 x39.4 x 17.7 inch) carry case that it easy and light to carry around.
“When we reached out to commercial industries, they said ‘well that’s great, but we don’t always have a long runway. We could be launching in forest areas or adverse terrain.'” Thomson says. “VTOL was really required. So in about 2015 we started looking at putting the VTOL pods on this airframe.
“The challenge is that powering the VTOL pods and getting it up in the air is really energy intensive. But because this airframe without the avionics in it is only 4 kg (8.8 lb), it’s incredibly light, and because we build and layer it all by hand, you can have some components that are very strong, with multiple layers, and others can be very light, with very few layers. Every part is optimized for efficiency.”
“It’s fully autonomous. You plan out a mission with mission planning software, you have a ground control system which is just a new laptop, it doesn’t have to be anything more than that. And there is a remote control if you want to switch to manual mode. But you need these things to be precise.
“There are other multirotors out there with both VTOL and cruise, you blink and there’s another YouTube video of someone who’s done some testing. But as far as we’re aware, there’s nothing else that’s been properly tested and launched. I haven’t been able to find anything in my research – mind you it’s usually desktop research – that you can go out and buy today, unless you’re talking about military grade.
“We’re trying to fit this middle commercial range between consumer and military. We don’t want hobby level batteries. We don’t want hobby-level ESCs (Electronic Speed Controllers). We want the good stuff, and that’s where the real gap is. Componentry is either hobby grade, or it’s unique IP for military drones.
“I’d say 50 percent of it right now is off-the-shelf, and 50 percent is bespoke. So our flight control system, mission planning software, is designed by Basque Aerospace specifically for us. But we use open-source Pixhawk 2 for the autopilot, because that can handle the transition between VTOL and forward flight, which is complex.
“So while right now it’s 50 percent off-the-shelf and 50 percent bespoke, we want to get to a point where it’s all bespoke. That commercial-grade avionics and electronics just doesn’t exist right now. And it might. In six months’ time, somebody with a lot of knowledge about that sort of thing could come out of the woodwork, and we’d be delighted to see that.”
The Volanti isn’t what you’d call cheap, being somewhere around AU$100,000 (US$76,000). This system is suitable for all kinds of commercial applications, ranging from agriculture and emergency response, to accurate surveying and mapping, mining and infrastructure assessment. What makes it an ideal machine is that it can cover long distances in a short time.