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Eye in the Sky
June 27, 2013   
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Prof. Marek Orkisz, rector of the Rzeszów University of Technology in southeastern Poland, talks to Danuta Górecka.

You recently coordinated two major research and development projects that focused on advanced aviation technology. The first involved a micro air vehicle referred to as a “flying research platform” and the second focused on on-board equipment for such a vehicle. Why were these projects carried out?

In the first project, we undertook to build a relatively small and durable air vehicle resistant to turbulence. We wondered what kind of technology we should employ to achieve this goal. So we constructed two vehicles, one based on classical technology with a pusher propeller, and the other with a disc-shaped wing. This design results in improved flight stability at high angles of attack.

In the course of work on the second project focusing on on-board equipment, we asked ourselves the question whether it makes sense using fuel cells in such a design and whether it is possible to power our air vehicle with solar cells. One fairly important problem with such small air vehicles is energy management. In Poland’s geographical conditions, we recently had winter for nearly six months, with a small number of sunny days. The use of a solar cell-powered air vehicle in winter, in such conditions, is completely out of the question. However, it is possible during the summer months when there’s a lot of sunlight.

When will micro air vehicles become a common sight in the Polish skies?

At present, aviation regulations in Poland do not permit flights when the aircraft is too small to be visible and without the consent of the Polish Air Navigation Services Agency. Until a new aviation law takes effect and permits the use of micro air vehicles, we can only practice on exercise sites, or places where there is no threat to the safety of people and animals.

Work on draft regulations in this area is already well advanced and we expect that the new law will come into force in early 2014. These regulations apply to the European Union as a whole.

Does this mean that the results of the projects will have to be shelved for some time?

Definitely not. If we had not carried out this kind of work, we wouldn’t know what to pay attention to when buying drones [unmanned aerial vehicles] for the Polish armed forces, for example.

It is also important that we have managed to bring together students around us. For them, it was important that they could, together with scientists, build something that stood the chance of being implemented. There are already the first tangible results of that. Some of the young engineers we have trained have already set up their own businesses and work on their own, dealing with micro air vehicles, for example.

It seems, like everyone else, they need to be provided with funds to get started...

European funds have enabled them to start up their businesses. There is a business incubator at the Rzeszów University of Technology designed to help young people enter the industrial market. The business incubator is called the Aeropolis Podkarpacie Science and Technology Park and it was established as an initiative by the Rzeszów Regional Development Agency (RARR).

The aim is to support young people, help them deal with many issues, such as those related to accounting, finance and logistics.

Why did the Rzeszów University of Technology decide to undertake such projects?

In 2004, the university joined the Aeronet Aviation Valley Center of Advanced Technology, which brings together 12 universities and institutes that pursue a policy of aviation development, for example in the micro air vehicle segment.

Another issue we considered was the use of hybrid engines. We built a hybrid engine and tested it out in a laboratory, thus proving that it’s possible to make a hybrid engine for micro air vehicles as well as larger aircraft.

Why is a hybrid engine needed in aviation?

Each type of engine has its field of application. The demands on an engine are different when an air vehicle is taking off to when it is carrying out its mission or cruising along.

In some situations, for example at takeoff, two systems are needed so that the air vehicle can develop high power. In turn, during air operations such as patrolling a forest or observations of power lines, a relatively small capacity is sufficient, and an electric motor can be used. During an approach to landing, both systems run at lower capacity because the vehicle is gliding—flying very much like a glider.

The use of hybrid engines in micro air vehicles is the reason why we undertook two additional projects. In one of these projects, we developed a fuel cell together with the AGH University of Science and Technology in Cracow. The other project involved a motor glider—a full-size aircraft with a weight of 480 kg and seating two persons.

Is your micro air vehicle an original, innovative design?

Most often the concept of innovation makes us think of something completely new. Innovation should also be understood as giving new functionality to something that already exists. We did not invent electricity or batteries, but showed how they can be used to power an air vehicle, for example. We have also created an innovative autopilot system with high functionality and performance parameters.

All these projects were coordinated by the Rzeszów University of Technology. Who else took part in them?

The projects were carried out in partnership with researchers from other institutions. In the “flying research platform” project we worked together with a team of scientists from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Fundamental Technological Research, who are experienced in building adaptive landing gear for aircraft. In another project, involving diagnostics of composites, we partnered up with researchers from the Polish Academy of Sciences’ Institute of Fluid-Flow Machinery in Gdańsk. The Warsaw University of Technology and the ŁódĽ University of Technology also took part in these projects. In total, 60 people worked on them.

Let’s talk about money. How were the “flying research platform” and “on-board equipment” projects financed?

For the first project we received almost zl.4 million. The project required substantial funds because we had to create everything from scratch. The second project cost around zl.2.5 million because some of what was needed was already in place and it was only a question of modernization. Both projects were initially financed by the Ministry of Science and Higher Education and then by the National Center for Research and Development.

Have you done some market research as to who could buy your micro air vehicle?

Recently I was approached by a company that provides security services at a housing development in Wrocław. That company was interested in our air vehicle for monitoring purposes. We ourselves use our micro air vehicles, when it’s legal, to film events such as student festivals, for example. The police are also interested in such a vehicle. The biggest problem for everyone is the cost involved. I think that if micro air vehicles were built in Poland, they would cost much less than those purchased in countries such as Israel or the United States.

How much do you think such a micro air vehicle would cost in Poland?

I’m unable to give a precise answer at this point. I think this will certainly be in the range of zl.150,000-200,000. But it’s also a question of setting the profit margin. In each case, these figures could be adjusted depending on the version of equipment offered.

Could the Polish army be interested in buying such micro air vehicles, especially as they seem to be particularly well suited for military purposes?

Yes, especially vehicles with high flight speed. Because if something like that weighs 10 kg and flies at a speed of 400 kph, then, as a matter of fact, it’s a powerful missile.

Factfile
A micro air vehicle (MAV) is a small drone, or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), that can have a variety of commercial, research, government and military applications. While military and special operation uses are the most common, MAVs are also increasingly deployed for civilian purposes, such as policing, firefighting and non-military security work, such as surveillance of pipelines. Unmanned aerial vehicles enable remote observation of hazardous environments inaccessible to ground vehicles and are often preferred for missions that are too dangerous for manned aircraft.

Since MAVs and other unmanned air vehicles do not have a human pilot on board, they are controlled either autonomously by computers in the vehicle or by an operator on the ground or in another vehicle.
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