Design of a multi-rotor VTOL UAV and docking station for automated aerial transport


Last academic year at KU Leuven, we designed, built and test flown a VTOL UAV: the VertiKul. During this project we gratefully made use of the info and support of the DIY Drones community and therefore we would like to share our results on this project.

The VertiKul is designed for automated aerial transport of small packages and is optimized for maximum range and payload capability. The innovative design makes use of the benefits of both multi-rotors and fixed-wing airplanes. For take-off and landing, the VertiKul hovers like a quadrotor and for forward flight, the VertiKul pitches 90° and flies like an airplane.In airplane mode, the attitude is also controlled by differential thrust of the motors. Therefore, no additional control surfaces are required, reducing the number of moving parts, risk of failure and maintenance cost. The structure is made out of three carbon fiber tubes in a ‘H-configuration’ allowing an easy accessible space for a 10x15x20 cm package of 1kg. The tubes are connected using laser cut multiplex wood and wings are constructed using a polystyrene-balsa sandwich structure, covered with Oracover. For a good directional stability, the wings are slightly swept-back and winglets, that also help reducing the induced drag, are added. Since the wings introduce a high moment of inertia and strong moments because of wind around the yaw-axis, the propellers are tilted 10° to improve the yaw control.

Because of the two different flight modes and the transition in between, a new control strategy is needed. This strategy contains three levels. The first level, or low level, is the angular rate control as in “Acro mode”. Because of the -90° pitch in forward flight, it becomes hard for a human pilot to control the VertiKul since a roll command results in a yawing motion and a yaw command makes the vehicle roll (in counter-intuitive direction, yaw to the left results in roll to the right!). To make the control more intuitive, a mid-level controller is designed around the angular rate controller. This controller acts as “Stabilize mode” when the VertiKul is in hover and makes an automatic transition to forward flight when a switch is turned on the transmitter. The transition to forward flight takes around 5 seconds and gradually decreases the pitch angle to build up the speed required for enough lift of the wing in forward flight. Any input from the pilot is ignored during this phase.  A quaternion representation was required in order to avoid the ‘Gimbal lock’. In forward flight, the pilot inputs are only the desired altitude and heading, making it easy to fly by inexperienced pilots. Finally, the high-level controller generates a trajectory between two base stations and commands flight mode, altitude and heading to the mid-level controller.

In order to have a fully autonomous system, we also developed a docking system. The system includes an optical precision lading system, based on a PX4FLOW unit and a docking station at which a package or battery can be swapped. The VertiKul starts from one docking station with a fully charged battery and a package of 1 kg and then flies to its destination, 30km further, based on GPS. Once arrived at location, the VertiKul makes a precision landing on the docking station at that location. The battery is replaced with a full one and a new package is loaded so that the VertiKul can continue to its next destination.

The PX4FLOW camera we use for this autonomous precision landing is re-programmed in order to detect the center of the marker on the docking station and sends these coordinates to the autopilot on the VertiKul. Based on the altitude, roll and pitch angle of the VertiKul, the position of the marker is calculated and a position controller navigates the VertiKul to the landing spot. In order to be able to land at night, the marker is illuminated by leds under the surface of the translucent marker.

Check out the video here: http://youtu.be/omaxgFVDUWg

 

We haven’t yet been able to test the full performance of the VertiKul because of the limited test area where we can fly. During test flights we experienced a lot of influence of the wind on the big wings, making automatic landings very hard. Also the battery and package swap is not yet automated, leaving us with enough work to continue this project.

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Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on July 14, 2014 at 8:04am

Very cool work, and I like the design.

How much roll authority in fast forward flight do you have without ailerons?  I'd think relying on motor torque alone might not be nearly strong enough if the air is turbulent?

Comment by Mustafa TULU on July 14, 2014 at 8:11am

It would be nice to see test footages. 

Comment by Menno Hochstenbach on July 14, 2014 at 8:40am

Be sure to check out the video! https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=omaxgFVDUWg

Comment by Daniel Lukonis on July 14, 2014 at 9:21am
That is amazing! Are you going to offer delivery services or sell the units?
Comment by Menno Hochstenbach on July 14, 2014 at 9:44am

@ Rob: do you mean how stable is it? We've flown only up to angles of attack of 40degrees, so under the still under the stall speed. The reason for this is because its cruise speed is about 70km/h, so to fast to keep track of in our small testing field. It did fly stable, it maintained it's altitude and heading. I don't know if stability is more of a problem at lower angles of attack and higher speeds, maybe it's even better there... About motor torque, the propellers are inclined 10degrees so quadcopter yaw actuation is not a problem anymore. 


Comment by Austin H on July 14, 2014 at 10:00am

Fantastic !!!  and congratulations

is the code available for  public use ?

I'm keen to replicate your experiment

cheers 

Comment by Menno Hochstenbach on July 14, 2014 at 10:02am

@Daniel: this was a thesis project for Cyriel, Maarten and me. There is still a lot of work and next year new students will continue working on it together with Bart. However commercialization is not at hand, yet ;-)

Comment by johnkowalsky on July 14, 2014 at 11:47am

Hmm but why not a tailsitter ?? is it inherently worse than this configuration ?? Me thinks that for VTOL and limited hovering it's ideal

Comment by Menno Hochstenbach on July 14, 2014 at 11:57am

Good remark, but the reason is simple: a real tailsitter does not allow such a easy parcel insertion as this one (see video). Also a tailsitter normally still has control surfaces. One of our goals was to have a transitioning VTOL that has no servos. Servos can get jammed and fail faster than brushed motors.

Comment by Stephen Carlson on July 14, 2014 at 12:33pm

Very Cool!

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