Runways are inconvenient, and helicopters are inefficient. Between these two statements is the quest for Vertical Takeoff and Landing, or VTOL, flying machines. Hampered for decades by the difficulty of building such an aircraft that can switch from hovering to forward thrust mid-flight without jeopardizing the humans inside, drones have rapidly adapted to the task. Like this one, the V-Bat from Martin UAV, on display at the drone industry's Xponential conference in New Orleans this week:
Flying can be simple. While modern helicopters are a complex hodge-podge of parts, the basics are, well, basic: a spinning rotor that generates lift and provides forward momentum, another contra-rotating blade to keep the vehicle level, and a compartment for people to travel inside. Without the need to worry about human passengers, flying machines can be much simpler. In fact, as a team of researchers at ETH Zurich recently proved, a flying machine can be built with just one moving part.
Drones are usually behind the camera. The unmanned flying machines are perhaps best known as filmographers and spy planes, mechanical beasts training unblinking eyes on the ground below. But there is more to the craft than their ability to spy: when outfitted with LED lights and set to a live band, drone swarms themselves become the spectacle--a new high art. Sky high art.
The future doesn't need runways. Vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), a family of technologies that let flying machines do exactly what the name implies, could mean "fixed wing" aircraft that fly and land almost anywhere. DARPA is particularly interested in new vehicles like this, and are funding the unmanned VTOL LightningStrike X-Plane concept from Aurora Flight Sciences. Using many ducted fans, it lifts off into the sky without a need to roll forward an inch:
Drones today are inadequate. While the basics of simple unmanned flying machines are simple enough, if drones are going to revolutionize how people do anything, they'll need to do much more, within the basic confines of their design. So Local Motors, a Phoenix-based open-source manufacturing company, is partnering with Airbus to design a cargo drone for the future.