Hackathon could transform drone technology

UniSA PhD graduate Jia Ming Kok, who now works for DST, working with engineering students at UniSA’s six-week intensive hackathon. SCIENCE AND TECHNOLOGY
UniSA PhD graduate Jia Ming Kok, who now works for DST, working with engineering students at UniSA’s six-week intensive hackathon.

UniSA’s School of Engineering students are using their specialist skills to hack hardware, and in the process are hoping to create a more efficient drone design based on a dragonfly’s wings.

In partnership with the Defence Science and Technology (DST) Group (part of Australia’s Department of Defence), UniSA has launched a six-week intensive hackathon to test and prove a theory that dragonfly-like flapping wing technology would be more efficient than current drone technology.

UniSA PhD graduate Jia Ming Kok, who now works for DST, says advances in technology have allowed a hackathon based on hardware, rather than software, to happen for the first time.

“A few years ago, I would’ve said that hacking hardware wouldn’t have been possible,” Kok says.

“With the development of technology such as 3D printing in conjunction with Computer Numeric Control (CNC) machines we can speed up our processes to go from design to production in just a few days.”

CNC machines convert designs produced by Computer Aided Design software (CAD), into numbers.

“My PhD study’s aim was to prove that the dragonfly is a good flyer and the hackathon will test my theory and replicate the biology of the dragonfly to fill the gap in existing drones technology,” he says.

The multidisciplinary team is made up of mechanical, electrical and mechatronic engineers who conduct paid work together from 9am-5pm. To improve efficiency, the group designs together, and eats lunch together, giving them as much time as possible with each other under the guidance of academic and industry supervisors to achieve their own part of the project goals.

“Working six weeks intensively helps us improve efficiency and meet tight defence timelines,” Kok says.

“The team is working cohesively together with each person working towards their own part of the project.

“This unique experience presents UniSA engineering students with the opportunity to learn real skills fast with constant academic supervision and ongoing contact from sponsors. In fact, the team is currently ahead of schedule, something we’re really proud of.”

UniSA mechanical engineering student James Koning, who is working on the dragonfly wings, says the hackathon is a worthwhile experience.

“As it’s hardware based, we get to see our designs come through and get built really quickly, unlike most hackathons which are software based,” James says.

“We create a design on the computer and it gets built within the week and we can test the design to see if it works.”

Professor Javaan Singh Chahl believes that an aeronautically optimised dragonfly drone would have many benefits.

“Multirotor drones are approaching their apex. Big companies like Amazon will face battery power challenges to increase the payload capacity and range of multirotor for delivery missions,” Prof Chahl says. “Currently, flight time is 45 minutes at maximum, realistically much less for load carrying.

“Our flapping wing prototype is a unique approach compared to other big players overseas who are also working towards flapping wing drone prototypes.

“If we succeed, we will create drones that are robust to collisions, have stop/start functionality, and have a low tip velocity so as to be safe to fly around humans.

“My belief is that many small drones will embrace flapping wing technology in the next 15 years.

“We hope to make the hackathon a yearly event and expand the number of topics. With summer being a quiet time both commercially and academically, we can also seek out other unique real-world challenges to solve in this way.”

Top engineering students are hand selected or can apply to be involved in the project. Quality applicants will be selected based on the skills required to achieve the hackathon goal.

Students who are interested in participating can contact UniSA’s School of Engineering by email Sch-ENG.Enquiries@unisa.edu.au or telephone (08) 830 23011.