Canada's Aphid helicopter soars to new heights

- Ottawa, Ontario

Staying on course with new UAV technology

For many years, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) have been used for security and defence, search and rescue and for the surveying and mapping of remote areas. As the demand for their application soars, so too will the need for increasingly complex control systems, navigation equipment and communication technologies to keep them in the air and on course.

Defence Research and Development Canada (DRDC) provides the Department of National Defence (DND) and security communities with the technologies they need to defend and protect Canada’s interests at home and abroad. DRDC is also involved in the research and development efforts surrounding UAVs, including the design of a customized onboard data acquisition system that can collect and use real-time data about itself to help it take off and land autonomously.

To develop such a robust intelligence system, DRDC enlisted the help of experts from the National Research Council's (NRC) Civilian Unmanned Aircraft Systems program to develop and test new sensors, electronics and computer programs that would enable future military UAVs to perform above and beyond their original design specifications.

A unique development platform

One of the greatest challenges for the advancement of UAVs is the development of technologies that not only allows them to self-pilot, but also empowers them to control various aspects of their operations and communicate with others in a fleet. “Being able to deploy vehicles with autonomous flight control will revolutionize Canada’s search and rescue, hazard mitigation and Canadian Armed Forces operations,” explains Dr. Michael Trentini, Group Head in Autonomous Systems Operations at DRDC.

Together, DRDC and NRC worked through the early stages of building an autonomous UAV by developing a detailed computer model that allowed a UAV to control itself in virtual simulations. Meggitt Training Systems Canada, a private sector partner of DRDC, was later brought in to perform the test flights and develop the methodology to safely switch between autopilot and remote modes.

To that end, NRC engineers outfitted a single-occupant Aphid helicopter with a series of sophisticated sensors to collect data on the aircraft’s movement. A small unmanned prototype helicopter (only 2.5 metres in diameter) dubbed the "T-Rex" was then used to test the instrumentation suite (GPS receiver, remote control, ground station, sensors, air data system, autopilot system) before transferring guidance and navigation control back to the Aphid.

Flying towards the future

After six years of design and development, the result is a computer-controlled flight system that allows the Aphid helicopter to safely take off on its own, perform manoeuvres via remote control and then return to an automated state for self-landing. “DRDC is extremely pleased with the results that NRC was able to deliver. With access to its world-class aerospace lab and expertise in mathematical modelling, NRC provided the ideal solution to advance our research and development needs” says Trentini.

Ken Hui, Senior Aerospace Engineer with NRC, further adds that “the success of this project really came from having an integrated technology team that brought together all of our strengths: DRDC’s experience in UAVs, NRC’s expertise in automated electronics, sensors and control inputs and Meggitt's background in testing and building the ground station.”

The Aphid helicopter has recently completed a series of unmanned flights in the Arctic to test the viability of using unmanned systems in the North. Longer term, DRDC will employ the new control technology for a variety of public safety and military UAV applications, helping the Canadian aerospace sector to land new opportunities that are certain to take off.

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