Using inexpensive parts to build your own drone is a great idea, but the elements are capable of tearing your machine to bits, if they feel so inclined. This is why Ran D. St. Clair, an electronics engineer based in California, built a nine-piece drone that plies the air by flexing and flapping its components, floating along even as wind threatens to derail its path.
Borrowing slight inspiration from the already flexible wings of a commercial airliner, St. Clair calls his creation a “Flex-Plane,” owing to its fluid movements as it navigates a gale. A video of one of his test flights recently caught some traction on Reddit, and it’s not hard to see why the plane’s pterodactyl-like flight resonates.
St. Clair says his machine is a work in progress. It’s modeled after Boeing’s solar-powered Odysseus aircraft—the lightweight vessel capable of soaring at altitudes of 100,000feet for months on end. “This led to the idea of making the aircraft modular with flexible joints that reduce the stresses on the relatively rigid modules,” St. Clair tells Popular Mechanics.
After achieving flight with a gargantuan, 33-foot flexible aircraft last year, St. Clair has been slowly tinkering with the Flex-Plane concept. His earlier exploits with the particular model enjoyed mixed success, as his first three-module Flex-Plane struggled to stay aloft:
As for how the aircraft operates, St. Clair details the mechanics in a handy explainer video. In a sense, it’s a complex system belied by simple hardware: “The planes themselves are extremely simple and inexpensive, made of hobby-grade parts and foam board,” he says.
But the aircraft’s flight is made possible through a main receiver and flight transmitter, hooked up to wires that transfer a signal to each of the nine components. St. Clair harnessed his engineering prowess to bring the project to reality, developing a special, open-source firmware called Open Aero VTOL alongside a friend. The system enables communication between the modules, and ultimately, flight.
St. Clair is pleased with his exploits, but notes the work isn’t finished:
This is only the first flight of the x9 configuration, and it is clearly not tuned properly yet. The various flapping and oscillation modes make the video more interesting, but the goal is to make it fly smoothly and well damped, even in modest turbulence.
Turbulence is aviation’s perennial foe, no matter the aircraft.
Originally posted on Popular Mechanics