The idea behind the this project is to develop a UAV platform capable of carrying shock-sensitive electronics, such as gimbaled cameras with large telephoto lenses, while maintaining low ground support requirements. The rotoplane will combine elements from both helicopters and aircraft. It will have the ability to fly like an airplane, but also the capability of landing like a helicopter. This is admittedly a very ambitious project to undertake in the limited time available for a senior thesis. My goal is not to build the next generation UAV, but rather to prove that a vertically landing fixed-wing aircraft with a thrust to weight ratio of less than one is feasible. If I can accomplish this before my thesis is due I’ll be satisfied.
What platforms already exist?
There already exist UAV platforms with low ground support requirements such as those developed by Aerovironment. The whole aircraft and ground station can fit in just a backpack or two. Unfortunately, the methods used for achieving the low ground support requirements come with some drawbacks. The landings are accomplished through a deep stall, and the airplane is subjected to considerable forces upon the semi-controlled impact with the ground. Although the airplane is designed for this type of landing, not all electronics are, and these landings thereby preclude carrying shock sensitive equipment.
Another UAV manufacturer, Insitu, makes an aircraft that is capable of carrying sensitive electronic equipment such as gimbaled cameras with telephoto lenses because they have developed a landing method that reduces the accelerations during landing to levels acceptable for gimbaled camera systems. They have accomplished this through a patented Skyhook method similar to that of the tail-hook landing method of carrier-based aircraft. Unfortunately, the skyhook method requires a large amount of equipment at the landing site.
Is there a need for the Rotoplane?
Well, it depends who you ask. The fleet of small UAVs built by Aerovironment through the Scan Eagle and up to the Global Hawk pretty well span the gamut of necessary UAVs. That said, a ScanEagle type aircraft that was capable of autonomous landings without ground support equipment would be an improvement on the ScanEagle. Over the course of my thesis I hope to develop a proof of concept of such a UAV platform.