Rocket Lab Sets Their Sights On Rapid Reusability By Snagging Rockets In Mid-Air With A Helicopter

Not so very long ago, orbital rockets simply didn’t get reused. After their propellants were expended on the journey to orbit, they petered out and fell back down into the ocean where they were obliterated on impact. Rockets were disposable because, as far as anyone could tell, building another one was cheaper and easier than trying to reuse them. The Space Shuttle had proved that reuse of a spacecraft and its booster was possible, but the promised benefits of reduced cost and higher launch cadence never materialized. If anything, the Space Shuttle was often considered proof that reusability made more sense on paper than it did in the real-world.

Rocket Lab CEO Peter Beck with Electron rocket

But that was before SpaceX started routinely landing and reflying the first stage of their Falcon 9 booster. Nobody outside the company really knows how much money is being saved by reuse, but there’s no denying the turn-around time from landing to reflight is getting progressively shorter. Moreover, by performing up to three flights on the same booster, SpaceX is demonstrating a launch cadence that is simply unmatched in the industry.

So it should come as no surprise to find that other launch providers are feeling the pressure to develop their own reusability programs. The latest to announce their intent to recover and eventually refly their vehicle is Rocket Lab, despite CEO Peter Beck’s admission that he was originally against the idea. He’s certainly changed his tune. With data collected over the last several flights the company now believes they have a reusability plan that’s compatible with the unique limitations of their diminutive Electron launch vehicle.

According to Beck, the goal isn’t necessarily to save money. During his presentation at the Small Satellite Conference in Utah, he explained that what they’re really going after is an increase in flight frequency. Right now they can build and fly an Electron every month, and while they eventually hope to produce a rocket a week, even a single reuse per core would have a huge impact on their annual launch capability:

If we can get these systems up on orbit quickly and reliably and frequently, we can innovate a lot more and create a lot more opportunities. So launch frequency is really the main driver for why Electron is going reusable. In time, hopefully we can obviously reduce prices as well. But the fundamental reason we’re doing this is launch frequency. Even if I can get the stage back once, I’ve effectively doubled my production ratio.

But, there’s a catch. Electron is too small to support the addition of landing legs and doesn’t have the excess propellants to use its engines during descent. Put simply, the tiny rocket is incapable of landing itself. So Rocket Lab believes the only way to recover the Electron is by snatching it out of the air before it gets to the ground.

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Single-Rotor Drone: A Thrust-Vectoring Monocopter

We’re not entirely sure what to call this one. It’s got the usual trappings of a drone, but with only a single rotor it clearly can’t be called by any of the standard multicopter names. Helicopter? Close, but not quite, since the rotor blades are fixed-pitch. We’ll just go with “monocopter” for now and sort out the details later for this ducted-fan, thrust-vectored UAV.

Whatever we choose to call it — builder [tesla500] dubbed it the simultaneously optimistic and fatalistic “Ikarus” — it’s really unique. The monocopter is built around a 90-mm electric ducted fan mounted vertically on a 3D-printed shroud. The shroud serves as a mounting point for the landing legs and for four servos that swivel vanes within the rotor wash. The vanes deflect the airstream and provide the thrust vectoring that gives this little machine its control.

Coming to the correct control method was not easy, though. Thanks mainly to the strong gyroscopic force exerted by the rotor, [tesla500] had a hard time getting the flight controller to cooperate. He built a gimballed test stand to work the problem through, and eventually rewrote LibrePilot to deal with the unique forces on the craft and tuned the PID loops accordingly. Check out the results in the video below.

Some attempts to reduce the number of rotors work better than others, of course, but this worked out great, and we’re looking forward to the promised improvements to come.

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Casting Tour-De-Force Results In Swashplate For Scale Helicopter

While quadcopters seem to attract all the attention of the moment, spare some love for the rotary-wing aircraft that started it all: the helicopter. Quads may abstract away most of the aerodynamic problems faced by other rotorcraft systems through using software, but the helicopter has to solve those problems mechanically. And they are non-trivial problems, since the pitch of the rotors blades has to be controlled while the whole rotor disk is tilted relative to its axis.

The device that makes this possible is the swashplate, and its engineering is not for the faint of heart. And yet [MonkeyMonkeey] chose not only to build a swashplate from scratch for a high school project, but since the parts were to be cast from aluminum, he had to teach himself the art of metal casting from the ground up. That includes building at least three separate furnaces, one of which was an electric arc furnace based on an arc welder with carbon fiber rods for electrodes (spoiler alert: bad choice). The learning curves were plentiful and steep, including getting the right sand mix for mold making and metallurgy by trial and error.

With some machining help from his school, [MonkeyMonkeey] finally came up with a good design, and we can’t wait to see what the rest of the ‘copter looks like. As he gets there, we’d say he might want to take a look at this series of videos explaining the physics of helicopter flight, but we suspect he’s well-informed on that topic already.

[via r/DIY]

Milspec Teardown: AH-64A Apache Data Entry Panel

It’s time once again to see how those tax dollars are spent, this time in the form of a “Data Entry Keyboard” manufactured by Hughes Helicopters. This device was built circa 1986 or so, and was used in the AH-64A Apache. Specifically, this panel would have been located by the gunner’s left knee, and served as a general purpose input device for the Apache’s Fire Control System. Eventually the Apache was upgraded with a so-called “glass cockpit”; consolidating various vehicle functions into a handful of multi-purpose digital displays. As such, this particular device became obsolete and was pulled from the active Apache fleet.

The military vehicle aficionados out there may know that while the Apache is currently a product of Boeing, it was originally designed by Hughes Helicopter. In 1984, McDonnell Douglas purchased Hughes Helicopter and took over production of the Apache, and then McDonnell Douglas themselves were merged with Boeing in 1997.

So it’s somewhat interesting that this device bears the name of Hughes Helicopter, as of the time it was manufactured, they would have been known as McDonnell Douglas Helicopter Systems. Presumably they had to work through existing stock of components that already had Hughes branding on them, leaving some transitional examples such as this one.

But you didn’t come here for a history lesson on the American military-industrial complex, you want to know about the hardware itself. So let’s crack it open to see what we can learn about this piece of aviation history.

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3D Print The Blasphemous Helicopter Part Known As A Jesus Nut

Today, when we say “Jesus nut”, we’re not referring to the people who spend their days proselytizing down at the mall. The term, likely spawned in the Vietnam war, refers to the main nut holding the rotors on to the mast of a helicopter which is in the shape of the Christian cross. If the “Jesus nut” was to fail, the rotors would detach from the craft, and there would be little for crews to do except to pray.

[Marius] was presented with a failed Jesus nut, though thankfully from an R/C helicopter, meaning there was no loss of life. A friend needed the part replaced for their FQ777 copter, so it was time to bust out the 3D printer and get to work.

The first step was to reconstruct the broken piece so it could be measured and then modeled in CAD software with the help of calipers to determine the original dimensions. What followed will be familiar to many 3D printing enthusiasts — a case of educated trial and error, experimenting with different filaments and print settings until a usable part was produced. [Marius] notes on the part’s Thingiverse page  that they achieved the best print with an 0.2mm layer height, and printing two parts at once to allow the layers more time to cool during each pass. It was then a simple matter of tidying up the part with sandpaper and a drill bit before installing it on the vehicle.

[Marius] reports that the part was successful, being both strong enough to withstand the forces involved as well as having a fit that was just right to suit the rotor pin which needs to be able to turn freely within the Jesus nut. While they’re not always the right tool for the job, 3D printed replacement parts can sometimes surprise you. These prints that are used in repair work often don’t attract the same interest as printing cosplay armor, kinetic art, and low-poly Pokemon. But they quickly prove how transformative having a 3D printer, and the skills to use it, are. That’s why we’re running the Repairs You Can Print contest… take a few minutes to show off the really useful repairs you’ve pulled off with your 3D printer!

Controlling A Micro Helicopter With A PS2 Controller

The Syma S107G is a venerable stalwart of the micro helicopter market. Affordable, robust, and ubiquitous, the S107G relies on infrared to receive its control signals. Emboldened by the prior work of others, [Robert] set out to control his with a Playstation 2 controller.

In this project, [Robert] is standing on the shoulders of giants, so to speak – we’ve seen others reverse engineer the S107G’s communications protocol before. [Robert] combined the efforts of several others to understand how to send commands to the helicopter, including use of two separate channels for controlling two at once.

With the knowledge of the necessary protocols, it’s then a matter of hooking up 3 LEDs in a somewhat unconventional series arrangement with a 9 volt supply, to be switched by an Arduino hooked up to a computer. A Javascript application running on the computer reads the state of a Playstation 2 controller, and spits it out over serial to the Arduino, which flashes the LEDs.

It’s not the neatest, most lightweight way of building a new controller for your remote control toy, but it does show how quickly one can throw together a project in a weekend by combining modern hardware and software tools. Plus, it’s a great learning experience on a platform that’s been experimented with the world over.

Vietnam War Helicopter Turned Amphibious Racecar

Our hats off to [SpeedyCop] and his [Gang of Outlaws] for turning a junked former Vietnam War helicopter into both an amphibious vehicle and a road race car. Yes, that’s right. It’s both driven on water and raced in the 24 Hours of LeMons at New Jersey Motorsports Park.

It started life as a 1969 Bell OH-58 Kiowa (US Army Vietnam Assault helo) and had not only served in Vietnam but also for a federal drug task force. It was chopped up for parts and the body found its way to [SpeedyCop] and friends. The body now sits on an 80s Toyota van chassis, has a Mazda Miata rear suspension, and Audi 3.0 V6 engine.

The pontoons were originally added to hide the seam between the helicopter body and the van but they then inspired the idea of making it amphibious. And with the addition of a four-blade, 7000 RPM propeller from a parasail boat, the idea became reality, as you can see in the video after the break (we suspect the trailing line is a rope to pull it back to shore in case of engine failure).

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