TWI wings in to civil aviation market with new unmanned aircraft
TWI is building an unmanned aircraft with inflatable wings as it attempts to make its mark on one of the aerospace industry’s most important emerging markets.
The Cambridge-based engineering specialist, which has made its name by pushing back the boundaries of join and weld technologies, is taking its civilian-use unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) through the final stages of initial development and plans to conduct a test flight around the end of September.
Once development is complete, the technology will be licensed out to manufacturers looking for civil-use UAVs, which are capable of overcoming the issues of cost and safety before they are rolled out to industry.
TWI has a wealth of expertise with UAVs and is currently involved in several other projects where the work is specific to client needs.
This latest work, however, is an independent programme, which at the moment is not tied down to any industrial partners, though TWI does not expect to manufacture and market the UAV.
The Granta Park company’s attention is currently focused on developing the joins which will knit the wings together, allowing them enough flexibility to be rolled up within a fuselage and enough strength to open out, lift the craft and sustain flight.
Paul Burling, TWI’s principal engineer in composite materials, said: “The civil market does not want something cumbersome and in need of expert handling. The wing can be inflated a number of ways and does not have to be pressurised. It can be opened up through forward motion, much like a paraglider.”
UAVs, most often associated with military and defence institutions, only form a small segment of the aerospace industry.
However, advances in high resolution remote sensing and image processing as well as progress in UAV technology has opened up their potential application in a number of civilian industries.
This has fed a feeling across the aviation industry that the civil UAV market has enormous potential and is ready to excel, a feeling echoed by several governmental bodies.
The UK Civil Aviation Authority’s acceptance that UAVs will be commonplace and share space with manned aircraft has led them to develop appropriate civil standards. Meanwhile NASA is developing a UAV roadmap to assess the capabilities of UAVs for civil use to complement the Office of the Secretary of Defense UAV roadmap.
UVANET, a pan-European industry association that has been established to advance UAV development, believes that within 10 years, affordable UAVs will be developed for civil operations.
These will include monitoring environment, monitoring disaster areas, communications relays, scientific research and law enforcement.
The power line monitoring market alone for Europe, Asia, Africa and the Middle East is expected to be over £200m between 2003 and 2012.
“There is a huge market on the civil side,” said Burling. “It depends on endurance, but the UAV could be used to loiter out at sea, patrol beaches, border control, examine crops. In Norfolk it could be used for inspection of pipelines and cables between the North Sea and the coastal compression stations.
“Large countries like Australia that are dependent on the right amount of rainfall or sun need to monitor their crops closely. We will be able to offer an alternative to the expense of helicopters or the time-consuming and often hazardous groundwork undertaken by employees.”
Burling believes that an appropriate monitoring system would weigh around 150 grams. TWI’s UAV can take a payload of up to 1.2 kilos, though the heavier it is the more detrimental effect it has on endurance.