3D printed Cargocopter

At KU Leuven we have been developing a new generation of drones to double the speed and range of conventional multi-rotor drones.

For quite some years already, multi-rotor drones are the preferred type of drone for typically applications such as filming or inspection, in which the drone flies at low speeds and usually stays rather close to its pilot. On the one hand, the design of these drones is not very well suited for covering long distances at high speeds, which are beneficial in multiple applications such as parcel deliveries or emergency services. On the other hand, fast and efficient fixed-wing drones require a person or catapult to take off and a runway, parachute or net to land which limits their possibilities in fully automated missions.

Our team has been focusing on improving the speed and range of multi-rotor drones. We, therefore, combined the benefits of fixed-wing drones with those of multi-rotor drones resulting in a hybrid solution which performs a transition from hover flight into an efficient cruise flight. The only moving parts of the drone are the four propellers which are used to provide lift, thrust and control. This results in a robust, lightweight and low-maintenance solution.

Back in 2014, our first prototypes took off.  These designs made a transition from hover to cruise flight of 90°, with a large wing producing 100% of its required lift in cruise flight. Flying in windy conditions, however, was challenging due to this large wing. Therefore, we decided to improve the wind resistance by reducing the wing size and compensate the loss in lift by improving the aerodynamics and only make a partial transition such that the propellers still produce part of the lift in cruise flight. The result is a very wind tolerant, efficient and fast new generation of drones… The CargoCopter.

Our designs have been evolving fast: a parametric selection algorithm optimises every new CargoCopter design for its mission-specific requirements. The designs are specifically engineered to be suited for lightweight 3D printing. Thanks to this agile methodology, we were able to design, manufacture and test-fly dozens of prototypes with gradual improvements leading up to doubling speed and range compared to standard multi-rotor drones.

The CargoCopters designs are meant to transport payloads up to 5kg, achieve speeds up to 150km/h and cover distances up to 60km.