UAV propeller system makes the grade


By Ian Ross

Thunder Bay innovator has landed a deal with a U.S. defence contractor that could take his small aviation firm soaring to new heights.

Andrew Kondor, president of Aerovate, has sold two units of his leading edge passive variable pitch propeller system to a U.S. military supplier for use in light observation drones.

For confidentiality reasons, Kondor was unable to identify the company, but said this supplier’s unmanned aircraft are currently active in global combat zones and they will be working with him in the coming months to further test and tweak his technology.

If adopted for military use, Kondor said the potential is there to manufacture up to 100 units that could become a very lucrative US $500,000 annual order, pending upon the success of the units.

“It’s sort of a next-level breakthrough for us. All of our work and research has paid off to the point where our first customer has actually paid money for it.”

The propeller system used for unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), or drones, has been
Kondor’s work for the past six years through many phases of prototypes.

It’s designed for low horsepower (50 HP or less) craft that can fly missions of up to 10 hours.

“In the world of hunt and kill machines, it’s small.”

His system changes prop pitch in flight without the use of electronics or hydraulics. Offered as a direct replacement to conventional light and fixed-pitch propellers, it promises greater efficiency on takeoff and cruise. The technology automatically senses the load on the propeller and changes the pitch.

“Ours is a bolt-in-and-go system.”

With the trend in UAVs moving toward miniaturization, Kondor aid weight and incorporating light material is an ongoing consideration.

“It’s about smaller aircraft, less fuel and the range to go just as far,” said Kondor. “We would like to adapt our technology down one size.”

That means replacing aluminum with titanium or possibly casting one-piece carbon fibre systems.

“We’re willing to entertain that but it all costs so much money. There’s so much we want to do with this thing with practical good-quality testing.”

His UAV prop systems range from 28 inches in diameter to up to 37 inches. But for another emerging market, he needs to scale up his prop to a canoe paddle-sized 72 inches.

Through a partnership with Sensenich Propellers of Plant City, Fla, one of the most respected manufacturers in the manned and unmanned aviation market, he’s adapting his UAV technology to design a prototype hub system for the air boat industry, a popular recreational pastime in the southern U.S.

“It’s a substantial change in horsepower with systems from 200 to 800,” said Kondor. “It’s a very strong market. These guys are like hot rodders.”

If both markets take off, Kondor wants to establish a testing facility, complete with wind tunnel, at Thunder Bay International Airport where he could employ his own machinist to make components. Currently, that’s been contracted to Kam Valley Industries.

At the airport, Kondor envisions a wind tunnel testing chamber capable of replicating wind speeds of up to 125 kilometres an hour for possible light sport and experimental aircraft testing.

“The move to the airport is an eventuality. I foresee it within two to three years.”

Longevity has paid off for Kondor, who once worked as a local hobby store owner making radio-controlled aircraft kits for customers, including airframes and propeller systems.

He still makes small camera-carrying quad copters for customers for $400 to $500 apiece, but the larger drone airframes he leaves to the big manufacturers.

“Once we realized the airframe business was not the low-hanging fruit, we jumped off that ship and decided to focus on the patented variable pitch system, and basically sell the fact that we’re turning a one-speed vehicle into a vehicle with a full automatic transmission.”

As a regular attendee at the annual Association of Unmanned Vehicle Systems International trade show, the exposure he’s gotten has led to a spate of inquiries on a weekly basis asking if the technology has other applications.

“I’m hoping this year we’re going to see more traction than any other year before. I believe it takes a good three years in this industry for folks to see if you’re still around. “

His three to five-year plan is to adapt his system for green energy use, specifically large wind turbine operations.

“If the wind is extremely powerful, you need electronic braking. We could remove the requirement for braking by reversing the gearing system. The higher the wind speed the flatter those blades go. The slower the wind speed, the more coarse they become so that the slightest amount of wind will help turn that blade. We would look at licensing that technology rather than manufacturing because we can’t manufacture (that size).”

Kondor said he’s never entertained the possibility of leaving Thunder Bay and relocating elsewhere to be closer to customers.

For one thing, UAV operators want cold weather testing and extreme terrain for short takeoffs and landings. And being involved in aerospace business in Northern Ontario, with the possibility of creating high-tech jobs, he said, is now in vogue with funding agencies like Industry Canada and the Northern Ontario Heritage Fund.

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