Ignoring the Old Math, a San Francisco Startup Reinvents UAV Wings

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respond to sensor data in near-real time. Hargreaves, whose research at Berkeley included a project to turn beetles into cyborg UAVs, is in charge of the needed software. “You have to take into account the angle the vehicle is at, the wind speed, the speed relative to the ground and the air, the pitch and yaw, the inertial moments; and according to all that you can adjust the system dynamically to perform optimally for that regime of air flow,” Hargreaves says. “That’s where I come into the equation, in terms of giving this wing a brain.”

The extra motors and processors in the Aquila wing add only add about 300 grams to its 3.4-kilogram mass, and the motors draw only about 5 to 10 percent of the power normally going to the drone’s propeller. It all pays off in terms of increased lift, Goel says.

The main complaints of many UAV buyers, he says, are that the craft can’t fly far enough and can’t carry enough weight. He does a back-of-the-envelope calculation to shows how Vires Aero could help with that headache. A Boeing ScanEagle, a UAV widely used by military organizations, weighs 18 kilograms and has a 22-kilogram maximum takeoff weight, so it can carry a 4-kilogram payload—say, cameras, radar, or other reconnaissance gear. If Vires Aero’s wings can double the craft’s lift coefficient, the new maximum take-off weight would be 44 kilograms, which means the ScanEagle could carry 26 kilograms, minus the weight of the new wing mechanism.

“You can play with the numbers, but it’s easy to see that the difference is astronomical,” Goel says.

Early wind tunnel experiments using green smoke illustrate how turbulent air flow over a wing (left) smooths out after the belt is activated (right). Image courtesy of Vires Aero.

Early wind tunnel experiments using green smoke illustrate how turbulent air flow over a Vires wing (left) smooths out after the belt is activated (right). Image courtesy of Vires Aero.

At this stage, Vires Aero is all about numbers, and testing whether the flight measurements live up to Goel’s projections. The company will also have to figure out how to handle everyday problems like malfunctions in the moving parts, water and dirt on the wings, and the like.

But even if the Aquila wing proves itself, the tiny company—which has only one full-time employee in addition to the three co-founders—probably won’t evolve into a full-fledged UAV manufacturer. More likely, Greene says, it will just make wings, or license the technology to other companies. The company is going to focus for the time being on small craft, up to ScanEagle size—the Boeing craft has a 3-meter wingspan. Beyond that, it would need to partner with, or raise capital from, larger aerospace companies.

But those problems are in the future. Right now, the biggest challenge for Vires Aero is just proving that Goel’s late-night math breakthrough in Kanpur will work in practice.

“People are very reluctant to move away from the conventional processes that have been used for the last 100 years,” Greene says. “Trying to convince people who are not aerospace engineers and mathematicians that this will work is important, and is a feat in itself.”

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Wade Roush is the producer and host of the podcast Soonish and a contributing editor at Xconomy. Follow @soonishpodcast

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  • Steve Lewis

    Great article!