Aircraft That Fly Like Hummingbirds

Maryland vertical take-off and landing designs receive top honors in the Vertical Flight Society’s annual student design competition

2 min read
Metaltail, autonomous coaxial-proprotor swing-wing tailsitter

Imagine an autonomous coaxial-proprotor swing-wing tailsitter that, like the high-altitude hummingbirds of Ecuador, leverages visual sensory information and adjustable wing geometry to maneuver in megacity environments. Let’s call it Metaltail.

Metaltail, autonomous coaxial-proprotor swing-wing tailsitter

Now picture a coaxial proprotor tailsitter configuration that utilizes a novel variable incidence boxwing and a bidirectional ducted fan, all in a vehicle weighing 532.6 kilograms that can hover and fly up to 426 kilometers per hour. Call it Kwatee.

Kwatee, coaxial proprotor tailsitter

Both of these designs received top honors in the Vertical Flight Society’s annual Student Design Competition, which challenges students to design a vertical lift aircraft that meets specified requirements.

In the graduate category, the University of Maryland (UMD) and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics placed first for designing an autonomous coaxial-proprotor swing-wing tailsitter that used visual sensory information and adjustable wing geometry to maneuver in megacity environments. Lightweight turboshaft engines and an aerodynamic design were also included. The team named their design the “Metaltail” for the Tyrian Metaltail hummingbirds, which have the agility to hover precisely in place in complex and dynamic environments. They also developed a FLIGHTLAB model of their vehicle, winning the optional bonus portion of the competition.

In the undergraduate category, UMD’s team won first place for designing a coaxial proprotor tailsitter with blades that optimize the compromise between hover and propulsive efficiencies through an extensive parametric sweep of 7,700 airfoils, taper and twist rates. The team called this the “Kwatee,” which boasted two flight modes with the capability for navigating in megacity environments, a maximum dash speed of 426 kilometers per hour, an extended range of 354 kilometers, and an endurance of 4.1 hours.

UMD has a strong record of excellence at this competition. Last year, UMD also placed first in both the graduate and undergraduate categories, and, in 2016 and 2015, UMD won the top award in the graduate category.

This year, the US Army Research Laboratory (ARL) sponsored the competition with a total of $13,000 in prize money. The teams will be awarded a cash stipend and will be invited to the Vertical Flight Society's Annual Forum and Technology Display in May 2019 to present the details of their designs. Team members receive complimentary registration to the Forum, a technical event that promotes vertical flight technology advancement.

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Top Tech 2022: A Special Report

Preview two dozen exciting technical developments that are in the pipeline for the coming year

1 min read
Photo of the lower part of a rocket in an engineering bay.

NASA’s Space Launch System will carry Orion to the moon.

Frank Michaux/NASA

At the start of each year, IEEE Spectrum attempts to predict the future. It can be tricky, but we do our best, filling the January issue with a couple of dozen reports, short and long, about developments the editors expect to make news in the coming year.

This isn’t hard to do when the project has been in the works for a long time and is progressing on schedule—the coming first flight of NASA’s Space Launch System, for example. For other stories, we must go farther out on a limb. A case in point: the description of a hardware wallet for Bitcoin that the company formerly known as Square (which recently changed its name to Block) is developing but won’t officially comment on. One thing we can predict with confidence, though, is that Spectrum readers, familiar with the vicissitudes of technical development work, will understand if some of these projects don’t, in fact, pan out. That’s still okay.

Engineering, like life, is as much about the journey as the destination.

See all stories from our Top Tech 2022 Special Report

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