Peter Donaldson reports on two smarter, more autonomous UAVs that are able to fly in any weather.

Under development by Blueflite®, Slate and Cobalt are a pair of uncrewed, tiltrotor cargo vehicles with payload capacities of 2-5 kg, ranges from 20-90 miles and potential speeds of up to the 100 mph limit for UAVs in their weight class.

The company’s CEO, Frank Noppel, says the UAVs are variants of a common platform with different propulsion and lift systems. Both have four pairs of propellers on tilting mounts that allow for thrust vectoring, but while Slate has wings to give it more range and speed, the wingless Cobalt boasts a larger payload and better hover performance. Blueflite® has facilities in Michigan and New York State.

An entrepreneur by inclination, Noppel has a passion for aerospace, backed up by bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from Karlsruhe University of Applied Sciences, and a PhD in aerospace and aeronautical engineering from Cranfield University.

His resume includes full-time posts with Airbus and Rolls-Royce. His first start-up was Ambeo, a UK-based air-taxi operator, formed in 2008. Ambeo flew Citation Mustang very light jets between airfields around Europe up until the company’s dissolution in 2013.

The idea that became Blueflite® dates back to 2017, when Noppel was working for McKinsey and Company, a global management consulting firm.

“I was looking for an opportunity and, based on previous experience, there were two ingredients that I thought essential,” he says. “One is passion; setting up a company and making it work is a marathon that can go on for years. The other is high growth potential. I’m passionate about aerospace and robotics, so I was looking at the drone space, but it was when I considered the logistics angle that it clicked.”

Key decisions
At that stage it was still unclear whether the prospective company would build or operate UAVs or make the components for them. “There were a lot of unanswered questions, but the first and most important was how seriously you take the idea, and whether you want to quit your job and do it,” Noppel says.

An important factor in making that decision was an early confidence boost in the form of an investment from renowned startup “accelerator” Techstars, he recalls, which encouraged him to set up Blueflite® in January 2018, and also helped to set its direction.

“The first couple of months were mainly about figuring out where to play in the space and we landed on making drones,” he says. “Our talent is more in tech than operations, and we also think it’s the tech part that creates the long term value, so the OEM model is what we established in the first six months.

“Then we took a lot of time talking to the potential customer base to understand the problem we wanted to solve, and with that knowledge, started building the tech around it.”

Chief technology officer James McClearen also joined Blueflite® in 2018, bringing 15 years of design engineering experience in the automotive industry at companies such as AVL and Toyota, along with bachelor’s and master’s degrees in engineering from the Georgia Institute of Technology.

Noppel adds that the idea took some time to develop fully, in no small part because there were still many unknowns in an evolving industry. Knowing they wanted to be involved with UAVs and logistics, they worked out step-by-step how to make it happen.

Since the project’s genesis, Blueflite® has put a lot of effort into understanding the requirements that a cargo UAV system must meet. At the highest level, these are reliability and operating economics, says Noppel.

“Reliability is important because these vehicles will be used for package delivery, regardless of weather and environmental conditions. They need to be rugged to withstand repeated use. Attractive operating economics are achieved through a high degree of automation and by optimising lifecycle cost without the need for significant ground infrastructure,” he explains.

Operating concepts
Blueflite® receives the most requests from three sectors: healthcare, remote industrial delivery and e-commerce delivery.

“Lately, we have been seeing that companies in these sectors are interested in setting up their own drone operations, which we can help them with. The platform is a dual-use technology that also appeals to public sector and government customers,” says Noppel. “This is increasingly important in the evolving political landscape and helps reduce risk for Blueflite® because it adds another potential customer base.”

The intended operating concept encompasses hub-to-hub, hub-to-spoke and point-to-point flights. As each category involves more complexity than the one before it, most early use cases fall under hub-to-hub.

In a representative mission, once the operator is notified of the need to transport something, the item is loaded into the UAV, or a UAV pre-loaded with an item such as emergency medical equipment is allocated to the flight. Next, the flight plan is created and cleared, the UAV takes off, and the operating staff monitor the flight.

Once the UAV arrives at its destination, there are several options for payload delivery, including landing the vehicle so that it can be retrieved manually, or either dropping the item or winching it down to the ground. Finally, the UAV returns to base.

Blueflite® is also working with manufacturers of automated parking/recharging stations and is developing a means of operating the UAVs from a remote-control centre.

Original source: https://www.ust-media.com/ust-magazine/UST054/108/

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