Dario's Lab

Development of a Long-Range VTOL Surveying and Surveillance Platform for Linear Infrastructure Inspection and ISR

Following successful delivery of the Cometa project, Carbonix identified an opportunity to bring to market a surveying and surveillance platform aimed at commercial operations.

This was an underserviced niche because the fundamental challenge of carrying 1Kg to 5Kg payloads over significant distances (hundreds of kilometres as opposed to the 0.5 to 1Km ranges offered by multirotors and ‘foamy’ airframes) had not been addressed.

Leveraging sophisticated aeroelstic structures in advanced composites and a team capable of solving difficult technical problems with an aggressive practical approach, Carbonix took on the challenge.

An agreement was struck with D3 Applied Technologies to take the Cometa as a starting point and develop it into two models that eventually became Volanti and Domani.

Volanti (above left) is an all-electric aircraft weighing 16Kg overall that can carry 1Kg for two hours. This represents extraordinary efficiency given current battery technology.

Domani (above centre and right) uses a petrol pusher motor fitted with a generator to provide electrical power for the avionics and payload. This is combined with an electric VTOL (Vertical Take-Off and Landing) system. Weighing 50Kg overall, Domani can carry 5Kg for eight ours or 6Kg for six hours depending on fuel tank configuration.

As always, Carbonix approached the challenge by defining the key ultimate engineering requirements – how will the product be used, what’s important to the user, what are the main points of friction for deployment?

Immediately obvious was the challenge of launch and retrieval! To obtain the long range that would make this tool uniquely disrupting, fixed-wing flight was necessary. But if the system was to be used in the real world, it would not be possible to count on the availability of a runway (or even a flat field with suitable glideslopes in and out).

So how to get the aircraft up to flying airspeed without a runway, and without the bulky equipment associated with catapults, arrestor nets etc.?

At the time we embarked on the project (2014/2015), autopilot (PID) stabilised quadcopters were gaining acceptance as proven technology.

Having toyed with the idea of using a multirotor to launch and retrieve a fixed-wing airplane, we then identified a way to graft a quadcopter VTOL system to the existing airframe with minimal changes and surprisingly little weight and drag penalty (though the quad system added mass and drag, the rear motors rode on the existing booms. Also, we were able to delete flaps, wheels, and specify a less powerful pusher motor).

There followed several iterations, first on modified Cometa airframes, then on new dedicated Volanti versions and, eventually, the larger Domani.

Packaging for transportation and quick assembly and deployment remained a high priority. The eventual solution being rather neat (the picture above left shows the system packed in its transport case).

The platform was conceived as payload-agnostic, lending itself to a wide range of applications. With increasingly more powerful and compact lightweight gimballed video/IR cameras, the system was used for wildlife monitoring, security, monitoring mining operations, bushfire detection…

With high-resolution still cameras it could generate photogrammetry and orthomosaic models of farms, national parks, mines, roads, railways…

With multispectral cameras it could generate NDVI maps of vegetation allowing farmers and land managers to target interventions precisely, saving tons of fertiliser and pesticides.

With survey-grade LiDAR payloads it can generate high-definition models of electrical wires and poles, open-cut mines, pipelines…

Along the way, as Carbonix committed to develop a full ‘turnkey’ system, including proprietary avionics and software, the team grew and customers were engaged to carry out proof-of concept missions validating the system’s capabilities and informing ongoing development.

In order to continue an aggressive regime of flight-testing (in the thousands of hours), Carbonix gained a Remote Operator’s Certificate. This also enables training and has helped pioneer Beyond Visual Line of Sight operations.

Some high-profile customers and supporters took note along the way and encouraged the team to keep pushing the horizons. The team proved the effectiveness of its America’s Cup bred culture in tackling difficult engineering problems and coming up with effective elegant solutions to maximise value for customers.
While development remains ongoing, Carbonix is now recognised as a global leader in long-range aerial data capture. The team strives to replace manned aircraft offering better real-time aerial data at a fraction of the cost, with drastically reduced carbon footprint, less ground disruption and keeping humans safely on the ground.