To design and develop an electric vertical takeoff and landing (eVTOL) drone for the 2023 VFS Design-Build-Vertical Flight Competition. Our team used computer-aided design, simulations, and physical testing to optimize flight range, speed, payload, and autonomous navigation. The flying wing hybrid drone features technical and sustainable innovations that deliver exceptional aerodynamic efficiency and maneuverability.
Within aerial vehicles, small-scale vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drones provide advantageous capabilities — long-range efficient flight, exceptional speed and maneuverability, payload capacity, and autonomous navigation — all without requiring a runway. These capabilities enable VTOL aerial vehicles to quickly transfer payloads in areas difficult to access without a runway, for emergency military, medical, or search-and-rescue situations. CUAV joined the 2022-2023 VFS Design-Build-Vertical Flight Competition in hopes of exploring and innovating VTOL technologies through a competitive environment.
The competition features a flight course for electric aircraft to navigate through, completing as many laps as possible within a time limit. CUAV aims to design, fabricate, and test a VTOL drone capable of piloted and autonomous flight, carrying a sufficient payload across the competition course. The team designed a suitable aircraft, developed manufacturing and testing methods, and demonstrated technical innovations to achieve this.
To begin the project, the team performed many design trade studies which involved immense background research in mission requirements, existing drone technologies, and configuration selection. After much deliberation, the blended wing final configuration was chosen and evaluated for aerodynamics and structural stability using ANSYS, XFLR5, and Python. I focused on running structural simulations to analyze material selections and weight distributions for stable flight and ensuring manufacturability during the design process.
The controls and autonomy teams focused on motor efficiency and thrust generation while balancing weight, power, and budget constraints. Altogether, the team delivered an innovative drone design highlighting reflexed airfoils and recycled material landing gear to spearhead the competition.
As the manufacturing lead, I frequently verified with shop techs that our design would be manufacturable during the design process. The drone design included a foam body, carbon fiber legs, and a carbon fiber shell.
The foam body was CNC'd from foam. The foam was cut to stock using a wire foam cutter and milled using the Laguna SmartShop II SUV at the AACE Lab. The landing gear was assembled from recycled PLA and carbon fiber rods. The electronics were housed in the body of the foam. All the parts were to be epoxied together along with the shell to ensure smooth surfaces for airflow.
The Cooper Union first team aerial vehicle team received a funded award for placing in top 5 teams for VFS’s 2023 preliminary design report. We were unable to compete at the flight competition in June but look forward to supporting Cooper Union's future teams.
This project was part of the senior projects course at Cooper. The team took on the big challenge of designing and building a drone from scratch. With no tools and little funding, we worked to find materials, earn funds, and win awards to jumpstart our manufacturing process. In addition to optimizing our funds, the team made great efforts to find knowledge resources on VTOL drones. The field of VTOL drones is still sprouting so many meetings were spent sitting down, reading research papers, reviewing aircraft design content, and contacting specialists in the field including alumni working at Lockheed Martin and professors who were working on drone projects.
The greatest takeaway from this challenge was learning what it means to set a precedence. While the drone never got to fly at the competition, many students were excited to learn the design process and explore the prototypes the team built.
Key skills used:
Knowledge of aerodynamics and propulsion Aircraft stability and flight performance analysis using Python
Structural Analysis using ANSYS and XFLR5
Mechanical design and fab using Rhino3D and Solidworks
Manufacturing with XPS foam, carbon fiber, and thermoplastics
Recycled PLA Innovations (reference another project, ReCOOP)
Web Design Cargo and CSS
Budgeting and leadership