VTOL plane based on ETH research now coming to market

If you saw Rafaello D'Andrea's amazing TED talk from a few weeks ago, you will have been impressed by how his team solved the problem of controlling VTOL aircraft in the vertical position with just two props (VTOL aircraft are notoriously prone to wind disturbance when lending in vertical mode). Now that technology is coming to market!

From IEEE Spectum:

Quadcopters and other helicopter-style drones can take off and land vertically with pinpoint precision, but they aren’t as fuel efficient or as fast as fixed-wing drones. On the other hand, fixed-wing aircraft normally require either catapults or relatively long runways to get up to speed before taking off. A spin-off company from the Autonomous Systems Lab at ETH Zurich is trying to provide the best of both worlds with its eponymous Wingtra drone.

The Wingtra takes off vertically (it’s held upright on the ground by fins projecting from the wings and tail), then levels out into horizontal flight. For landing, the general process is reversed, but with the assistance of a camera located in the tail. This camera allows the drone to spot a printed target placed on the ground. Once in sight, the Wingtra will autonomously descend to touch down on the target, within about 10 centimeters of bullseye, says Wingtra’s Leoplold Flechsenberger. 

The battery-powered Wingtra can fly for about an hour, during which time it can travel 60 kilometers. There’s no need for continuous control by the operator, as the Wingtra will follow its flight path autonomously. A removable module can carry different payloads: Those looking to inspect railway lines or survey crops for precision agriculture might choose to equip the drone with a high-resolution LIDAR or camera package, for example. Alternatively, an add-on freight module lets the Wingtra carry up to 0.5 kilograms, whichFlechsenberger says might prove invaluable in dispatching medical supplies to rural areas.

The drone was designed with simplicity in mind. There are just five primary components: a set of wings combined with the fuselage to form a single body, plus two propellers and two flaps. The drone doesn’t even have a forward-looking camera (although Flechsenberger says one may in added in later versions). The price has yet to be announced, but as the Wingtra is aimed at professional and institutional users, it’s likely to be considerably more than what one would expect for anything aimed at consumers or prosumers. The system is expected to be commercially available in 2017, says Flechsenberger (who adds that Wingtra is hiring to accommodate its rapid expansion). 

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Comment by MarioSpeedwagon on March 15, 2016 at 11:37am
I would love to hear about the LiDAR module that they plan to equip. The provided link doesn't give any specifics, if the module even exists yet.

Comment by Graham Dyer on March 15, 2016 at 12:04pm

Can APM:Plane do this too yet?

Comment by Andrew Tridgell on March 15, 2016 at 12:57pm

@Graham, no, ArduPilot can't do tailsitters yet. There is some nice work by Leonard on singlecopter that is closely related, and I would certainly like to support tailsitters in the future, but we don't have it yet.

Comment by Gary Mortimer on March 15, 2016 at 1:08pm

The Pixhawk with PX4 stack can do it. 

Comment by Marcus Wright on March 15, 2016 at 1:21pm

There has always been a counter argument for using tailsitters as VTOL, that is the wind.  I think they can take off and transition fine but landing at a 45 deg angle is problematic.  Surely that can be overcome, right? 

3D Robotics
Comment by Chris Anderson on March 15, 2016 at 1:22pm

The ETH copters, such as this one, are based on the PX4 stack. But advanced functions like this are based on proprietary code running on top. 

Comment by John Moore on March 15, 2016 at 2:01pm

Impressive. Hopefully this tech wont take too long to trickle down to us hobbyists.

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 15, 2016 at 2:22pm

So a simple tail-sitter is "advanced" and not in the normal code?

Comment by Jeremy Randle on March 15, 2016 at 4:40pm

Thought you might all like to see a similar vehicle that was developed at the University of Sydney, Australia, 15 to 20 years ago. It is called the T-Wing and flew fully autonomously with our own designed autopilot hardware and software about 10 years ago. The primary controls were the control surfaces in the prop airflow, and differential thrust. From memory if the wind was very strong it could turn side on to the wind for landing. This minimised the area exposed to the wind, so minimising the tilt angle required to hold position. It also aligned the longest axis of the vehicle to the wind which provided the greatest margin in terms of tip over angle.

More info on the (old) web site at:   http://web.aeromech.usyd.edu.au//uav/twing/

Comment by Rob_Lefebvre on March 15, 2016 at 4:50pm

Gas power.  Now you're talking!


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