Hybrid watch

The popularity of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is growing every year and there are more and more varieties of models available. UAVs deliver food, monitor the operation of various facilities and weather measurements, and perform aerial photography. Optiplane (a portfolio startup of the SYGMA.Novosibirsk group) has developed a hybrid of airplane and copter – a rotorcraft designed for various industrial tasks. Co-founder of the company, Kirill Yakovchenko, explains the specifics of hybrid aerodynamics and shares how his company achieved this invention.

Thank you, Amazon

Novosibirsk engineer and entrepreneur Kirill Yakovchenko has worked in high-tech industries for over 25 years. Over that time, he has helped introduce several national payment systems, develop dozens of federal and regional information systems for energy conservation, automate business processes at Gazprom and Rosatom, and launch one of the first energy service startups in Russia. In 2013, he heard Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos talk about a new service – using UAVs to deliver small items to people’s houses (Amazon Prime Air) – and became enthusiastic about making drones.

He says the idea actually hit him when he “heard Bezos say something about Amazon Prime Air becoming as commonplace in the sky in a few years as trucks are on the roads.”

Kirill wanted to start producing unique devices, and in the future, to build an integrated system of UAV stations with parcel terminals. In 2014, Kirill Yakovchenko began implementing his idea. He started with studying the unmanned aircraft and copter models available on the market and decided that neither of them was suitable for transporting goods or conducting aerial surveillance: the aircraft were not sufficiently maneuverable and required special runways and qualified pilots, and copters could not fly far enough in the horizontal plane. Finally, he decided to blend the two and create a hybrid.

Up and coming

Kirill Yakovchenko built a team of enthusiastic engineers to help him with designing new models. The team eventually became a company called Optiplane Drone Systems. Theoretical modeling went on swimmingly but the new company lacked funding for implementation. The inventors started producing and selling ordinary drones while also making money from flight calibration. However, the money was not enough and they had to look for investors. The developers presented their project to an expert council of the Academpark Technopark in Novosibirsk.

The hybrid drone models looked promising to the senior management of Academpark and the young company became one of the technopark residents. They paid concessional rental fees on facilities necessary for design and development. They were also provided with a high-tech base for construction and trial of their first prototypes, and promotion opportunities. Subsequently, their project got support from a medical technopark and the Chaplygin Siberian Aviation Research Institute.

In 2016, Optiplane was included in the main list of projects by Rusnano, the SYGMA.Novosibirsk group of companies and T-Nano. Thanks to the funding from Rusnano’s Fund for Infrastructure and Educational Programs, the first hybrid model came out, Colibri-S1. The hybrid drone could cover up to 20 km at over 20 m/s, lift 1.5 kg and hover in the air for up to 30 minutes. The first VTOL UAVs were released in winter 2017 and were immediately adopted by the Emergencies Ministry for search and rescue operations, monitoring of floods and wild fires.

Gyrodynes on patrol

Currently, Optiplane produces gyrodynes that have a similar design to airplanes, with tandem wings and three rotors, on the front wings and on the tail. Powered by batteries, last year these aircraft were integrated with an automatic charging station as an experiment. If necessary, they can stop at the station, charge up and fly on to the destination. Basically, it takes one push of a button to start a flight. All observations during the flight are recorded on an embedded memory card. One battery charge is sufficient for a 45-minute trip.

Hybrid UAVs are popular with mining companies that use them to monitor open-pit mining process; the combination of the flying range and maneuverability of hybrids is especially useful in a challenging terrain. Optiplane UAVs are also used by farmers, energy workers, mineral and land surveyors. VTOL UAVs are used for planning and monitoring operations of mines and farms, detecting false alarms at sites (by sending the drone to inspect the facility after the alarm). These UAVs can be launched from a mobile phone, fly around the facilities and then be put in the car trunk and driven to the next destination. Unlike airplanes, a hybrid drone can be carried around in personal cars. Routine maintenance only includes battery changing. Special software is used to combine images and create orthophotomaps in automated mode.

VTOL UAVs are used to efficiently monitor industrial safety on-site, detect false alarms for private security personnel, help geophysicists, and solve many other industrial tasks.

Pilot prototypes of fully automated UAVs are being tested; they will be able to leave the garage without a command from the operator. They will be fitted with an automated image recognition system (currently being developed) that will compare the data received during each flight with previous results. This system will be used for monitoring mining processes, construction, control over crops and soil condition. The introduction of this technology will speed up the process of processing and analysis of results and will also reduce human reliability. Hybrid drones are currently produced in batches of 10-20 drones.

“We continue to scale serial production and are working on improving their DFM. We have several variants: for mine surveying, geodesy, fuel and energy industry, agricultural industry and forestry sector, as well as for protection of facilities,” Kirill Yakovenko says.

The company receives regular requests from the USA, Canada and EU countries, as well from the Middle East and Southeast Asia; particular interest is shown by Indian companies.

“Soon we will start exploring foreign markets as soon as we are fully prepared to provide uninterrupted supplies and technical maintenance in order to  be dependable and to provide our partners with all necessary assistance from day one. In 2020-2021, we plan to develop comprehensive partner relations with a distributor in one or two major Asian countries. Corresponding negotiations have been underway since last year. This is not a fast process, because along with technical tasks of providing support and service in a foreign country we also have to study local laws and the local market to make for efficient cooperation with a distributor. We will definitely work with foreign partners as they show a greater interest for our solutions than we expected,” Kirill said commenting on the company’s entry into the international market.

The main production facilities, which include a design bureau, a testing range and an assembling facility, are located in Novosibirsk, with parts manufactured in Troitsk outside Moscow.

Flying couriers

Kirill Yakovchenko’s plans include increasing production of rotorcraft and expanding their performance. The interest in Amazon Prime Air has proven effective: Optiplane founder intends to further manufacture cargo-carrying drones and has already offered service to Russia’s Sberbank. The negotiations took place during Sberbank chief Herman Gref’s visit to Novosibirsk’s Technopark, where he showed interest in the project. According to the bank’s estimates, transportation of bank containers will require UAVs with the minimum carrying capacity of 10 kg and a flying range of 150-300 km. The company is ready to develop and produce them by 2021 if there is mass demand.

By Christina Firsova    

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