Maybe Your Next Robot Should Be a Cyclocrane

At my university, we were all forced to take a class called Engineering 101. Weirdly, we could take it at any point in our careers at the school. So I put it off for more interesting classes until I was forced to take it in one of my final years. It was a mess of a class and never quite seemed to build up to a theme or a message. However, every third class or so they’d dredge up a veritable fossil from their ranks of graduates. These greybeards would sit at the front of the class and tell us about incredible things. It was worth the other two days of nondescript rambling by whichever engineering professor drew the short straw for one of their TAs.

The patent drawing.
The patent drawing.

One greybeard in particular had a long career in America’s unending string of, “Build cool stuff to help us make bad guys more deader,” projects. He worked on stealth boats, airplanes with wings that flex, and all sorts of incredibly cool stuff. I forgot about the details of those, but the one that stuck with me was the Cyclocrane. It had a ton of issues, and as the final verdict from a DARPA higher-up with a military rank was that it, “looked dumb as shit” (or so the greybeard informed us).

A Cyclo-What?

The Cyclocrane was a hybrid airship. Part aerodynamic and part aerostatic, or more simply put, a big balloon with an airplane glued on.  Airships are great because they have a constant static lift, in nearly all cases this is buoyancy from a gas that is lighter than air. The ship doesn’t “weigh” anything, so the only energy that needs to be expended is the energy needed to move it through the air to wherever it needs to go. Airplanes are also great, but need to spend fuel to lift themselves off the ground as well as point in the right direction. Helicopters are cool because they make so much noise that the earth can’t stand to be near them, providing lift. Now, there’s a huge list of pros and cons for each and there’s certainly a reason we use airplanes and not dirigibles for most tasks. The Cyclocrane was designed to fit an interesting use case somewhere in the middle.

In the logging industry they often use helicopters to lift machinery in and out of remote areas. However, lifting two tons with a helicopter is not the most efficient way to go about it. Airplanes are way more efficient but there’s an obvious problem with that. They only reach their peak efficiency at the speed and direction for which their various aerodynamic surfaces have been tuned. Also worth noting that they’re fairly bad at hovering. It’s really hard to lift a basket of chainsaws out of the woods safely when the vehicle doing it is moving at 120mph.

The cyclocrane wanted all the efficiency of a dirigible with the maneuverability of a helicopter. It wanted to be able to use the effective lifting design of an airplane wing too. It wanted to have and eat three cakes. It nearly did.

A Spinning Balloon with Wings

Four wings stick out of a rotating balloon. The balloon provides half of the aerostatic lift needed to hold the plane and the cargo up in the air. The weight is tied to the static ends of the balloon and hang via cables below the construction. The clever part is the four equidistant wings sticking out at right angles from the center of the ship. At the tip of each wing is a construction made up of a propellor and a second wing. Using this array of aerofoils and engines it was possible for the cyclocrane to spin its core at 13 revolutions per minute. This produced an airspeed of 60 mph for the wings. Which resulted in a ton of lift when the wings were angled back and forth in a cyclical pattern. All the while, the ship remaining perfectly stationary.

There’s a really great description of its operation in the article this photo came from.


It really didn't like strong winds.
It really didn’t like strong winds.

Now the ship had lots of problems. It was too heavy. It needed bigger engines. It was slow. It looked goofy. It didn’t like strong winds. The biggest problem was a lack of funding. It’s possible that the cyclocrane could have changed a few industries if its designers had been able to keep testing it. In the end it had a mere seven hours of flying time logged with its only commercial contract before the money was gone.

However! There may be some opportunity for hackers here. If you want to make the quadcopter nerds feel a slight sting of jealousy, a cyclocrane is the project for you. A heavy lift robot that’s potentially more efficient than a balloon with fans on it is pretty neat. T2here’s a bit of reverse engineering to be done before a true performance statement can be made. If nothing else. It’s just a cool piece of aerospace history that reminds us of the comforting fact that we haven’t even come close to inventing it all yet.

If you’d like to learn more there’s a ton of information and pictures on one of the engineer’s website. Naturally wikipedia has a bit to say. There’s also decent documentary on youtube, viewable below.

Photo Credits: Rob Crimmins and Hal Denison

A Grounded Option for the Jet-Setting Homebody

Over the course of 10 years, [Bruce Campbell] has built himself a sleek pad out of a Boeing 727-200 in the middle of the picturesque Oregon countryside.

As you’d expect, there are a number of hurdles to setting up a freaking airplane as one’s home in the woods. Foremost among them, [Campbell] paid $100,000 for the aircraft, and a further $100,000 for transportation and installation costs to get it out to his tract of land — that’s a stiff upfront when compared to a down payment on a house and a mortgage. However, [Campbell] asserts that airplanes approaching retirement come up for sale with reasonable frequency, so it’s possible to find something at a lower price considering the cost of dismantling an airframe often compares to the value of the recovered materials.

Once acquired and transported, [Campbell] connected the utilities through the airplane’s existing systems, as well going about modifying the interior to suit his needs — the transparent floor panels are a nice touch! He has a primitive but functional shower, the two lavatories continue to function as intended, sleeping, dining and living quarters, and a deck in the form of the plane’s wing.

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Stolen Tech: The Soviet Superfortress

Boeing’s B-17 was the most numerous heavy bomber of World War II, and its reputation of being nigh indestructible in the face of Messerschmidts and flak cannons is stuff of legend. The first flight of the B-17 was in 1935, and a decade later at the close of World War II, the B-17 would begin to show its age. It could only carry 6,000 pounds of ordnance; the first atomic bombs, Little Boy and Fat Man, weighed 9,700 pounds and 10,300 pounds, respectively. The Avro Lancaster notwithstanding, a new aircraft would be needed for the Allied invasion of Japan. This aircraft would be the Boeing B-29 Superfortress.

On paper, the B-29 nearly holds its own against all but the most modern bombers of aviation history. Yes, the B-29 is slow, but that’s only because jet engines were in their infancy in 1944. This bomber was a forgotten super weapon of World War II, and everyone – Japan, German, Great Britain and the USSR – wanted their own. Only the Soviets would go as far to build their own B-29, reverse engineering the technology from crashed and ditched American bombers.

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Making the Case For Nuclear Aircraft

At any given moment, several of the US Navy’s Nimitz class aircraft carriers are sailing the world’s oceans. Weighing in at 90 thousand tons, these massive vessels need a lot of power to get moving. One would think this power requires a lot of fuel which would limit their range, but this is not the case. Their range is virtually unlimited, and they only need refueling every 25 years. What kind of technology allows for this? The answer is miniaturized nuclear power plants. Nimitz class carriers have two of them, and they are pretty much identical to the much larger power plants that make electricity. If we can make them small enough for ships, can we make them small enough for other things, like airplanes?

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GoGo Starts Testing New In-Flight Internet Technology

GoGo, the largest provider of Internet above 30,000 feet, has announced they are now testing their next generation of in-flight Internet.

Of special interest in the new 2Ku system is the antennas strapped to the top of a GoGo-equipped plane’s fuselage. These antennas form a mechanically-phased-array that are more efficient than previous antennas and can provide more bandwidth for frequent fliers demanding better and faster Internet.

The Antenna Pod
The Antenna Pod

Currently, GoGo in-flight wireless uses terrestrial radio to bring the Internet up to 35,000 feet. Anyone who has flown recently will tell you this is okay, but you won’t be binging on Nexflix for your next cross country flight. The new system promises speeds up to 70Mbps, more than enough for a cabin full of passengers to be pacified by electronic toys. The 2Ku band does this with a satellite connection – much faster, but it does have a few drawbacks.

Because the 2Ku system provides Internet over a satellite connection, ping times will significantly increase. The satellites GoGo is using orbit at 22,000 miles above Earth, or about 0.1 light seconds away from the plane. Double that, and your ping times will increase by at least 200ms compared to a terrestrial radio connection.

While this is just fine for email and streaming, it does highlight the weaknesses and strengths of mobile Internet.

3D Printing RC Airplanes that Fly: An Engineer’s Chronicle

In the past, creating accurate replicas of models and fantasy objects was a task left to the most talented of cosplayers. These props need not be functional, though. [Steve Johnstone] takes replica model-building to the next step. He’s designing and building a model airplane that flies, and he’s documenting every step of the way.

Armed with a variety of 3D printing techniques and years of model-building experience, [Steve] is taking the lid off a number of previously undocumented techniques, many of which are especially relevant to the model-builder equipped with a 3D printer in the workshop.

As he continues his video log, [Steve] takes you through each detail, evaluating the quality of both his tools and techniques. How does a Makerbot, a Formlabs, and a Shapeways print stand up against being used in the target application? [Steve] evaluates a number of his turbine prints with a rigorous variable-controlled test setup.

How can we predict the plane’s center-of-gravity before committing to a physical design? [Steve] discusses related design decisions with an in-depth exploration of his CAD design, modeled down to the battery-pack wires. Though he’s not entirely finished, [Steve’s] work serves as a great chance to “dive into the mind of the engineer,” a rare opportunity when we usually discover a project after it’s been sealed from the outside.

3D printing functional parts with hobbyist-grade printers is still a rare sight, though we’ve seen a few pleasant and surprisingly practical components. With some tips from [Steve], we may complete this video journey with a few techniques that bump us out of the “novelty” realm and into a space where we too can start reliably printing functional parts. We’re looking forward to seeing the maiden voyage.

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Your Halloween Costume May Be Cool, But It’s Not Laser-Cut Cardboard Vintage Airplane Cool

While others are absorbed in baseball playoffs, [Aidan] has spent his recent Octobers planning incredible Halloween costumes for his son. We don’t know what he did last year, but there’s no way it’s better than this laser-cut cardboard airplane costume.

He had a few specs in mind and started with a model of a Grumman F4F-4 Wildcat from 3D Warehouse. Using SketchUp, he simplified the model and removed the landing gear and the propeller. [Aidan] created a simpler model on top of that, and set to work changing the proportions to make it adorable and toddler-sized.

To build around his son’s proportions, he inserted a 10-inch diameter scaled tube vertically into the model and squished down the fuselage in SketchUp. The plan was to have it laser-cut by Ponoko, which meant turning the design into flat pieces for them to cut. He ended up with 58 parts, many of them mirror images due to the symmetry of his design.

When the box from Ponoko arrived, [Aidan] was giddy. He was astonished at the quality of the pieces and found the plane very satisfying to build. But, he didn’t stop there. Using LayOut, he created a custom instrument cluster with reflections and shadows. The plane also has a Wii steering wheel, a motorized propeller, and of course, decals.