October 7, 2021
By Tom Atwood
A recent article from Business Insider weighed in on the future of drones, suggesting that “whether these unmanned aircrafts [drones] are controlled by a remote or accessed via a smartphone app, they possess the capability of reaching the most remote areas with little to no manpower needed, and require the least amount of effort, time, and energy.” As part of the article, the site predicted the following future generations:
Generation 1: Basic remote control aircraft of all forms
Generation 2: Static design, fixed camera mount, video recording and still photos, manual piloting control
Generation 3: Static design, two-axis gimbals, HD video, basic safety models, assisted piloting
Generation 4: Transformative designs, Three-axis gimbals, 1080P HD video or higher-value instrumentation, improved safety modes, autopilot modes
Generation 5: Transformative designs, 360° gimbals, 4K video or higher-value instrumentation, intelligent piloting modes
Generation 6: Commercial suitability, safety and regulatory standards based design, platform and payload adaptability, automated safety modes, intelligent piloting models and full autonomy, airspace awareness
Generation 7: Complete commercial suitability, fully compliant safety and regulatory standards-based design, platform and payload interchangeability, automated safety modes, enhanced intelligent piloting models and full autonomy, full airspace awareness, auto action (takeoff, land, and mission execution)
We add a caveat to this – the emergence of “morphing” drones marks the dawn of a new era of “Transformers” that will dominate the skies.
The signature example is the Pterodynamics Transwing (top photo). This vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL) design sits on the ground like any quadcopter, rises vertically powered by four motor pods, and then begins to lean in the direction of its intended heading while transforming in the air. The Transwing unfolds into a fixed wing airplane that flies horizontally like a conventional aircraft.
With a little tinkering by designers, other VTOL airframes could, and we think will, execute similar transformations. For example, the vehicle could launch as a single-fan “Discopter”, multi-fan quadcopter, hexcopter, or other type, and then morph into a shape that is efficient at high-speed horizontal flight. Suitable transformer platforms for horizontal flight range from traditional, tapered or delta wings to full flying wings like the Airbus ZEROe, to joined wing aircraft like the Parsifal Project design.
The Pterodynamics Transwing has launched a drone revolution. It is the beginning of a new era of flying transformers and marks a sea change in unmanned aerial mobility.
The following are photos of the Transwing and other future concept designs:
After taking off, the Pterodynamics Transwing begins to transform from its VTOL design.
Illustration showing the transformation from VTOL to fixed wing design.
Once the transformation is complete, the Transwing looks and acts like a fixed wing aircraft.
Various stages of the Pterodynamics Transwing.
The Pterodynamics Transwing in flight.
The Discopter prototype is made of a stack of massive circular aluminum tubing supporting seats for five to nine passengers. The design envisions twin, 450-hp automotive engines spinning a massive rotor beneath the passenger area, enabling a theoretical range of up to 540 nm at speeds of 110 to 135 knots. Discopter image courtesy of AOPA.
The “PrandtPlane” box wing platform is projected to carry half again more passengers than a Boeing 737. Illustration courtesy of the Parsifal Project.
The Airbus ZeroE BWB. Image courtesy of BBC REEL
Joined wing concept. Image courtesy of Parsifal Project.
Tom Atwood is an associate editor at Robotics-World, a general partner at Robotics Data, and the executive director of The National Robotics Education Foundation.