Before the Wright Brothers powered their way across the sands of Kitty Hawk or Otto Lilienthal soared from the hills of Germany, enveloping hot air in a balloon was the only way to fly. Concepts were refined as time went by, and culminated in the grand Zeppelins of the 1930’s. However since the tragic end of the Zeppelin era, lighter than air aircraft have often been viewed as a novelty in the aviation world.
Several companies have come forward in the last decade, pitching enormous lighter than air machines for hauling large amounts of cargo at reduced cost. These behemoths rely on a mixture of natural buoyancy and lifting body designs and are intended to augment ferries and short haul commercial aviation routes.
It was this landscape where Buoyant Aero founders [Ben] and [Joe] saw an underserved that they believe they can thrive in: Transporting 300-600 lbs between warehouses or airports. They aim to increase the safety, cargo capacity, and range of traditional quadcopter concepts, and halve the operating costs of a typical Cessna 182. They hope to help people such as those rural areas of Alaska where high transportation costs double the grocery bill.
Like larger designs, Buoyant Aero’s hybrid airship relies on aerodynamic lift to supply one third the needed lift. Such an arrangement eliminates the need for ballast when empty while retaining the handling and navigation characteristics needed for autonomous flight. The smaller scale prototype’s outstanding ability to maneuver sharply and hold station with a tailwind is displayed in the video below the break. You can also learn more about their project on their Hacker News launch. We look forward to seeing the larger prototypes as they are released!
We have to admit, we like airships. There’s something about the image of a stately zeppelin floating over Manhattan that just makes us imagine the future. There are not many airships anymore, but you can always build your own. [Crafty Robot] shows how to use one of their boards to make a simple and easy controlled balloon. Honestly, they don’t give you many details, but we know how to turn motors and servos. We loved their construction with hot glue and bamboo. Effective, and fun to say.
The bamboo skewers are easy to find and make a lightweight frame. Some drone motors provide thrust and some simple RC servos control the angle of the props. Nice and simple.
We always think that crossing the Atlantic in a blimp would be very serene — at least once they put heaters on board. The Hindenburg, the R-101, and the Shenandoah put an end to the age of the airship, at least for commercial passenger travel. But you can still fly your own with a helium balloon and some electronics. One notable project — the Blimpduino — has evolved into the Blimpduino 2. The open-source software is on GitHub. We couldn’t find the PCB layout, so we aren’t sure if it is or will be open. The 3D printed parts are available, though.
The PCB is the heart of the matter, a four-layer board with an ARM M0 processor, an ESP8266 WiFi module, four motor outputs, two servo motor outputs, a 9-axis inertial navigation system, an altimeter, and a forward object detection system. There’s also a battery charger onboard.
Building things that fly is hard. The constraints on small, battery powered, radio-operated gear already presents a challenge, but adding weight, balance, and aerodynamic constraints takes it to a whole new level. Sophi Kravitz rises to the occasion and discusses each challenge of building a blimp from start to finish in her presentation at the 2018 Hackaday Belgrade conference.
One of the pleasures of writing for Hackaday comes through the incredible array of talent and experience to be found among our colleagues. We all do our own work, but one is humbled by that which flows from the benches of those one works alongside. Just such a project is the Remote Control Mini Blimp from our colleague Sophi Kravitz. It’s a game involving an obstacle course and a set of remote-controlled blimps. The challenges in such an endeavour have been pushing the limits of what is possible with off-the-shelf components. Continue reading “Hackaday Belgrade: Sophi Kravitz’s Blimp Army”→
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.
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).
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.
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.
We’re not sure what FESTO is advertising with their odd flying beach ball. Amongst inspirational music it gently places its translucent appendage over a water bottle and then engulfs it with an unsettling plastic sound. With a high pitched whine it hovers away with its prey and deposits it in the hand of a thirsty business man, perhaps as a misguided nurturing instinct.
Despite discovering a new uncanny valley, the robot is pretty cool. It appears to a be a hybrid airship/helicopter on a small-scale. The balloon either zeros out the weight of the robot or provides slightly more lift. It’s up to the propellers to provide the rest.
We like the carbon fiber truss around the drone. It’s a really slick build with barely an untamed wire. This seems like a much safer design than a quadcopter for indoor flying. If its end effector wasn’t so creepy it would be even cooler. Video after the break.
Cornell University’s microcontroller class looks like a tremendous amount of fun. Not only do the students learn the nitty-gritty details of microcontroller programming, but the course culminates in a cool project. [Brian Ritchken] and [Jim Liu] made a thrust-vector controlled balloon blimp. They call this working?!?!
Three balloons provide just enough lift so that the blimp can climb or descend on motor power. Since the machine is symmetric, there’s no intrinsic idea of “forward” or “backward”. Instead, a ring of eight LEDs around the edge let you know which way the blimp thinks it’s pointing. Two controls on the remote rotate the pointing direction clockwise and counter-clockwise. The blimp does the math to figure out which motors to run faster or slower when you tell it to go forward or back.
The platform is stabilized by a feedback loop with an accelerometer on board, and seems capable of handling a fairly asymmetric weight distribution, as evidenced by their ballast dangling off the side — a climbing bag filled with ketchup packets that presumably weren’t just lifted from the dining halls.
It looks like [Brian] and [Jim] had a ton of fun building and flying this contraption. We’d love to see a distance-to-the-floor sensor added so that they could command it to hover at a given height, but that adds an extra level of complexity. They got this done in time and under budget, so kudos to them both. And in a world full of over-qualified quadcopters, it’s nice to see the humble blimp getting its time in the sun.