The beautiful world of drones

Image: Cometa CTOL airframe designed and built in collaboration with D3 Applied Technologies (supplied)

The future is predicted to see unmanned aerial vehicles in a fast-growing number of places. Brent Balinski spoke to Dario Valenza, founder of UAV maker Carbonix, about his company’s leap from racing boats to drones, a few design considerations, and what he hopes the future brings.

Dario Valenza began building ocean racing boats like IMOCA 60 monohulls, before working for a series of America’s Cup teams.

Through his work at Carbonicboats in the 1990s, and in America’s Cup Teams in the 2000s, he has seen advanced composites come a long way from obscurity to prevalence in marine and other industries.

“It was all learning; we were sort of pushing the edge of what could be done at any given time – things like doing large hulls out of carbon and managing the resin flow and the cure and core bonding,” Valenza, founder and CEO of Carbonix, told Manufacturers’ Monthly.

“I was obviously a very junior member of the teams that were doing those things, and being around when this stuff was being invented, effectively, allowed me to learn about applications of advanced composites for high-performance parts.”

From fabricating to design to operations management, Valenza spent his life learning the intricacies of fluid dynamics and the various trade-offs involved in design.

Up until two years ago, most of the company’s work was in marine, but when an opportunity to develop the tooling and construction for a new unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) airframe design by Spain’s D3 Applied Technologies came up, it allowed those skills to be applied in a different field with a few similarities.

A sailboat, he likes to say, is pretty much an airplane with one wing in and one wing out of the water.

After “about three years” of UAV work, Carbonic Boats re-branded as Carbonix in 2015 to reflect the new direction. It officially launched its new Cockatoo Island technology centre in October 2015. At the time, prime minister Malcolm Turnbull celebrated the company as “innovative” and an “example of what we have to do more of in the future”.

The business is currently expanding. It has one full-time aeronautical engineer on staff and another about to start. There are about five or six in the build shop currently, after starting out as more of a consultancy, managing contract manufacturing.

“We weren’t getting reliable processes and outcomes and the finishes we were after, and that sort of drove the decision to do our own manufacturing, to commit to opening the facility and getting the right people in and having our processes done [our] way,” said Valenza.

Dario Valenza in the Carbonix Cockatoo Island workshop with his team (Andrew Stevenson, Ronnie Hill and Taylor Thomas), putting the finishing touches on the transition fixed-wing, VTOL hybrid airframe (supplied)
Dario Valenza in the Carbonix Cockatoo Island workshop with his team (Andrew Stevenson, Ronnie Hill and Taylor Thomas), putting the finishing touches on the Transition fixed-wing, VTOL hybrid airframe built for Alti UAS (supplied)

“It was initially one guy full-time and four guys part-time, but as the workload grew we grew as well. About a year into it I took on a partner, who is more of a business expert than I am, to drive the business to grow. And that basically allowed us to grow a little bit faster and take on more projects and let the world know what we can do.”

End goal rather than shape

As for designing, there are several challenges when it comes to optimally building flying machines out of advanced carbon composites – something Carbonix was the first Australian company to do.

Overly complicated joints add difficulties with moulding, as do customer requests that have been designed for additive manufacture.

The right way to go is to start designing with a performance goal rather than a shape.

“You can effectively make a part hollow and have undercuts in it and just select anything you want out of the batch of material and just solidify the bits that you need,” said Valenza of a customer that had designed a fuselage to be built on a 3D printer.

“That was a very difficult thing to translate economically into something that could be moulded out of composites because it had undercuts and hollow bits. So that’s an example of where you’d keep those considerations in mind from the beginning.”

Moreover, there are tricky bits that require design experience – and the ability to keep limitations and best practice in mind – to properly understand.

The first things to think about are what the payload is, the mass and dimensions, and power requirements (including how long a battery needs to last).

“Then you go through this process where you essentially guesstimate the structural weight based on the wing area that you think will need to lift the payload and the fuel and the airframe,” he explained.

“And that’s a bit of a feedback loop, because the structural weight is influenced by the size of the wings, but the size of the wings is influenced by the structural weight.”

The company’s drones are capable of vertical takeoff and landing, have a specialised nosecone for purposes like switching between camera and IR, and are capable of four hours’ flight time for a mission.

Diverse deployments

In terms of future customers, Valenza believes there’s the most potential in mining. The resources industry is an area where there’s significant interest; spatial data can be collected much more cheaply, quickly and easily than by using human surveyors.

They are also targeting precision agriculture, as well as security and applications like shark watching at beaches.

The Carbonix workshop (supplied)
The Carbonix workshop (supplied)

Demand for UAVs is growing strongly overall. According to Markets and Markets, it will see compound annual growth of about 32 per cent, reaching $US5.6 billion by 2020.

Last week, two announcements suggest the breadth of applications will range from the seemingly trivial to those that are quite literally, life-and-death.

There was news of Google’s Project Wing would deliver Chipotle burritos to students at Virginia Tech. And then the Australian Army told the Land Forces conference in Adelaide that it wanted Australian companies to make a home-grown, backpack-sized drones for purposes such as battlefield reconnaissance.

UAVs have been used in Afghanistan by the US since the beginning of the millennium, and will be a priority for the new Defence Innovation Hub.

When asked about his plans for the future, Valenza said that the company would develop different categories of UAVs, as well as continue to build race boats.

“The main thing for me is building a company culture where we have these values of wanting to solve problems in an elegant way,” he said.

“So not just providing a solution, but making beautiful products, high-quality, top-end. So that’s where we’re headed and hopefully we can keep doing it.”