Extending UAV Flight Times with Lockheed Martin

A Penn State Collaboration

Sponsored by Lockheed Martin, three Bachelor of Computing students from Belgium Campus iTversity partnered with five mechanical engineering students from Penn State University to develop a power system to extend UAV flight times.

“I was very surprised when I found out we would be working with Lockheed Martin. Lockheed Martin is a military and technology industry giant, and having a personal interest in these fields myself, I was very excited for the opportunity.” – Third-year software engineering student at Belgium Campus, Dylan Conradie.

What Is a UAV?

UAV is short for unmanned aerial vehicle, also known as a drone. It is a type of aircraft that operates without a pilot on board. This is achieved via remote control or by programming the UAV to fly autonomously.

Drones are used for a variety of applications in a range of industries. Some of which include:

  • To capture aerial footage in the film industry.
  • To deliver medical supplies to remote areas in the medical industry.
  • To track wildlife in the conservation industry.
  • To monitor crops and collect data in the agriculture industry
  • For space exploration efforts in the aerospace industry.
  • For surveillance, reconnaissance missions, and expeditionary intelligence in the military industry.

Lockheed Martin’s sophisticated fleet of UAVs are used for diverse military applications, including those listed above. Ensuring these drones work optimally is often the difference between life and death. One hindrance to the effective application of UAVs is their power supply.

The Power Problem

Currently, most drones are battery-powered, limiting their maximum flight time to around 30 minutes due to the delicate balance between their weight and the power needed to make them fly. Even more sophisticated drones that use state-of-the-art batteries only have a maximum flight time of around 1 hour – not very much time at all.

Keeping the power problem in mind, Lockheed Martin challenged participating students to design, test, and build a hybrid electric power system capable of automatically switching between battery and generator power to increase flight endurance.

Project Roles

Under the virtual mentorship of representatives from Lockheed Martin, Belgium Campus’ Bachelor of Computing students and Penn State’s mechanical engineering students used the knowledge and skills from their respective disciplines to achieve the following:

Penn State

The students from Penn State were responsible for the system hardware. This included purchasing all the physical components per weight, space, and budget requirements, setting them up, and testing them to make sure they worked as intended. These components included, amongst other things, a fuel tank, an RC engine, a generator, a battery, and sensors to measure the performance of these components.

Belgium Campus

The Belgium Campus students were responsible for the software components of the power system. This included writing the code that would allow the system to automatically switch from battery to generator to ensure optimal power usage and the implementation of a kill switch for safety reasons.

They were also responsible for developing a system capable of accurately monitoring the various sensor outputs and displaying them in an easy-to-understand way. These outputs included the liquid level and flow of the fuel tank and the voltage, power, current, and temperature of the battery and motor. Achieving this required both front- and back-end development.

Arduino programming was used for the back end to allow the hardware to communicate with the monitoring system, and Node-RED was used for the front end to create a user-friendly interface where the sensor readings could be displayed. The finished system was placed on a server where the Penn State students could access it to test their various hardware components.

“We didn’t want to limit our system by only making it compatible with drones. The system we developed can be used to test anything with a battery, generator, or fuel tank, and the representatives from Lockheed Martin actually complimented us on its versatility.” – Third-year software engineering student at Belgium Campus, Zandrei Kleynhans.

The Outcome

The Lockheed Martin representatives were impressed with the progress the students were able to make. Their efforts form part of an ongoing collaboration, where a new set of students from each institution build on the work done by the students before them.

The end goal of this project is to develop a prototype that can serve as proof of concept for a power system capable of significantly extending the flight times of various UAVs. The next group of students will improve on the existing system and work to implement the system into an actual drone. We are excited to see what they go on to achieve.