The CargoCopters are unmanned aircrafts that can lift off by themselves, cover fifty-kilometre distances, and reach speeds of up to 150 kilometres per hour. Aeronautical and robotics engineer Bart Theys from the Department of Mechanical Engineering came up with the idea for this new type of drone about five years ago and based it on two existing models. “The most commonly used drones are multicopters,” says Theys.
“These have several propellers and can easily take off, descend, and hover over a specific location. They’re useful for making aerial photographs but not for flying fast and far. Drones with wings and a tail can do this but they need help to take off and require a lot of space to land. We’ve combined the best of both systems: the drone takes off with the help of propellers but it also has wings so that it can reach high speeds and handle long distances.”
For the development of the drones Theys used a special algorithm. “You enter different variables such as speed, weight or distance into the algorithm, and then it calculates the most fitting designs. The different parts are produced with a 3D printer so that we can test these designs very quickly and efficiently as well. Quite a difference compared with the old days, when we had to set to work with wood and glue (laughs). By developing and optimising dozens of different prototypes we managed to create CargoCopters that can fly twice as fast and far as the existing multicopters.”
With VertiKUL, his very first drone experiment in 2014, Theys had already shown that you can use small aircrafts to deliver little parcels of one kilogramme. The new and improved CargoCopters can handle even bigger loads and are also useful for hospital interventions or surveillance.
“We’re working on several projects that each require a different type of drone,” says Theys. “For instance, we have developed a prototype for bpost (the Belgian Post Group, ed.) that can deliver parcels of up to two kilogrammes".
"It can hold parcels the size of a shoebox and comes with a gps system that can determine locations with a two-centimetre accuracy. These drones are not meant to replace our postal workers, of course, but they can help lighten the workload – for instance by meeting the growing demand for parcel transport from e-commerce.”
Together with the city of Heist-op-den-Berg Theys and his team are developing an ambulance drone. “This city is quite large and hospitals are very far away. It takes the ambulances of the medical urgency team (the so-called MUG, ed.) about twelve minutes to get there".
"For someone who’s having a heart attack, that’s usually too late. Our drones fly at a speed of 120 kilometres per hour and may be equipped with a camera and a portable defibrillator. The drone can reach its destination in minutes and thus save human lives.”
These drones are not meant to replace our postal workers but they can help lighten the workload. “Hospitals can also use drones to transport tissue and blood samples to the lab, or to collect urine samples at the doctor’s office,” Theys continues.
“The fire brigade and the police see the potential as well. When the fire brigade receives a call, for instance, a CargoCopter with a camera can fly to the scene right away and film it. This allows firemen to assess how serious the situation is before they arrive and decide how many people they’ll need.”
Although it sounds as though science fiction is about to turn real, it’s unlikely that your next pair of sneakers will be delivered by a drone. And you may want to postpone that heart attack in Heist-op-den-Berg, too. “In any case, more research needs to be done,” says Theys.
“We’re now trying to further increase the speed and make the drones safer and more autonomous. The drones also need more sensors to detect obstacles as well as ground stations where they can land without any problems. The long-distance communication needs to be improved as well.”
And then there’s Belgian legislation. “At the moment, drones are not allowed to fly further away than the eye can see. The legislation also doesn’t take into account research and development, so that you have to register and insure each new prototype. That is very time-consuming and slows down our research. Luckily, we can count on the help of initiatives such as DronePort in Sint-Truiden, where we do tests in an area above which the airspace can be reserved for drones only.”
“With our pilot projects we want to demonstrate the usefulness of drone technology and thus move towards a change in regulations,” Theys concludes. “And then, hopefully, we’ll see the first service drones in the streets in a couple of years’ time.”