Ground effect vehicles, or ekranoplans, have the advantage of being more efficient than normal aircraft and faster than boats, but so far haven’t been developed beyond experimental prototypes. Fortunately, this doesn’t stop companies from trying, which has led to a collaboration between [ThinkFlight] and [rctestflight] to create a small-scale demonstrator for the Flying Ship Company.
The Flying Ship Company wants to use unmanned electric ekranoplans as high-speed marine cargo carriers that can use existing maritime infrastructure for loading and unloading. For the scale model, [rctestflight] was responsible for the electronics and software, while [ThinkFlight] built the airframe. As with his previous ekranoplan build, [ThinkFlight] designed it in XFLR5, cut the parts from foam using a CNC hot wire cutter (which we still want a better look at), and laminated it with Kevlar for strength. One of the challenges of ground effect vehicles is that the center of pressure will shift rearward as they leave a ground effect, causing them to pitch up. To maintain control when moving into and out of ground effect, these crafts often use a large horizontal stabilizer high up on the tail, out of ground effect.
A major feature of this demonstrator is automatic altitude control using a LIDAR sensor mounted on the bottom. This was developed by [rctestflight] using a simple foam board ekranoplan and [Think Flighs]’s previous airframe, with some custom code added to ArduPilot. It works very well on smooth, calm water, but waves introduce a lot of noise into the LIDAR data. It looks like they were able to overcome this challenge, and completed several successful test flights in calm and rough conditions.
The final product looks good, flies smoothly, and is easy to control since the pilot doesn’t need to worry about pitch or throttle control. It remains to be seen if The Flying Boat will overcome the challenges required to turn it into a successful commercial craft, and we will be following the project closely.
[rctestflight] has built several autonomous boats, and with missions becoming longer and more challenging, he bought an inflatable kayak to serve as a dedicated rescue vessel. Instead of relying on outdated manual paddling, he built an autonomous solar-powered tugboat.
The tugboat uses a pair of molded fiberglass hulls in a catamaran configuration. The wide platform allows a pair of 100W solar panels to be mounted on top. It was [rctestflight]’s first time molding anything out of fiberglass, so there was quite a bit of trial and error going on. The mold was 3D printed in sections, aligned with dowel pins, and glued together. After the epoxy had cured, the mold halves could be split apart for easier removal of the hull.
As with most of [rctestflights] autonomous vehicles, control is handled by a Pixhawk 4 running ArduPilot/ArduRover. A pair of 76 mm brass propellers powered by brushless motors provide propulsion and differential steering. The motors get power from six LiFePO4 batteries, which charge from the solar panels via MPPT charge controllers. The hulls are covered with plywood decks with removable hatches and inspection windows. After a bit of tuning, he took the boat for a few test runs, the longest being 5.1 km with himself in tow in the kayak. At less than 5 km/h (3 mph) it’s no speedboat, but certainly looks like a relaxing ride. Many of [rctestflight]’s previous vessels were airboats to avoid getting underwater propellers tangled in weeds. It was less of an issue this time since he could just haul the tugboat close to the kayak and clear the propellers.
[rctestflights] are always entertaining and educational to watch, and this one certainly sets the standard for sea-shanty soundtracks at 13:32 in part two.
Scope creep is a real pain in the real world, but for projects of passion it can have some interesting consequences. [rctestflight] was playing around with 3D printed rover gearboxes, which morphed into a 3D printed tank build.
[rctestflight]’s previous autonomous rover project had problems with the cheap geared motors, and he started experimenting with his own gearbox designs to use with lower RPM / Kv brushless drone motors. The tank came about because he wanted a simple vehicle to test his design. “Simple” went out the window pretty quickly and the final product was completely 3D printed except for the fasteners, axles, bearings, and electronics.
The tracks and gears are noisy, but it works quite well. On outdoor tests [rctestflight] did find that the tracks were prone to hooking on vines and branches, which in one case caused it to throw a track after the aluminium shaft bent. An Ardurover navigation system was added and with a 32 Ah battery was able to run autonomously for an entire day and there was surprisingly little wear on 3D printed gearbox and tracks afterward. All the STL files are up on Thingiverse, but [rctestflight] recommends waiting for an upcoming update because he discovered flaws in the design after filming the video after the break.
There’s nothing quite like the sight of a plastic box merrily sailing its way around a lake to symbolise how easy it is to get started in autonomous robotics. This isn’t a project we’re writing about because of technical excellence, but purely because watching an autonomous plastic box navigate a lake by itself is surprisingly compelling viewing. The reason that [rctestflight] built the vessel was to test out the capabilities of ArduRover. ArduRover is, of course, a flavour of the extremely popular open source ArduPilot, and in this case is running on a Pixhawk.
The hardware itself is deliberately as simple as possible: two small motors with RC car ESCs, a GPS, some power management and a telemetry module are all it takes. The telemetry module allows the course/mission to be updated on the fly, as well as sending diagnostic data back home. Initially, this setup performed poorly; low GPS accuracy combined with a high frequency control loop piloting a device with little inertia lead to a very erratic path. But after applying some filtering to the GPS this improved significantly.
Despite the simplicity of the setup, it wasn’t immune to flaws. Seaweed in the prop was a cause of some stressful viewing, not to mention the lack of power required to sail against the wind. After these problems caused the boat to drift off course past a nearby pontoon, public sightings ranged from an illegal police drone to a dog with lights on its head.