When most people visualize a drone, they think of a quadcopter. Some might think of a fixed-wing (like a plane). But few think of a tricopter.
One exception to that is Trent Lukaczyk, FlightWave’s Co-Founder and Chief Technology Officer. He has tricopters on his mind all the time.
FlightWave, a Santa Monica-based drone company, launched their new Jupiter tricopter drone at the 2019 Commercial UAV Expo in Las Vegas. So why the tricopter design?
Lukaczyk compares his tricopter drone to putting a suspension system on a car. A car with a powerful suspension system won’t feel the bumps of the road, and a drone with a suspension system won’t feel the bumps every time the drone moves its angle.
Popular camera drones today have accounted for that by mounting their cameras to gimbals. Whereas in the past, gimbal-less drones had shaky, jello-y footage, gimbals smooth it out. Gimbals are a sort of suspension system for cameras.
“With the development of gimbals and cameras, it’s been accepted that we’ve put a suspension system on cameras,” said Lukaczyk. “But that’s restricted to just the camera. We think we can handle putting a suspension system on the whole aircraft.”
With the Jupiter tricopter, there’s no need for gimbals
Gimbals are a smart way to stabilize a camera. But what happens when you have 5 cameras on a drone (say, for a drone with machine-vision capabilities)? 5 gimbals seems inefficient. What happens when you put humans on a drone — have them ride on a giant gimbal? The Jupiter tricopter design skirts the need for gimals completely, instead finding another way to make the drone’s journey nice and smooth.
Instead of a gimbal, FlightWave uses what it calls ’tilt-pods.’ The Jupiter tricopter has two tilt-pod-equipped motors that allow it to tilt (many other tricopters have just one tilting motor). The two tilting motors allow the entire drone to stay level every time it moves a position — the only thing that tilts is the motor (rather than the entire aircraft).
The Jupiter tricopter drone is more agile and can turn more quickly
“If we wanted, we could turn the Jupiter 360-degrees, 3x a second,” said Lukaczyk.
There’s no real use-case for that on the Jupiter, as its primarily an enterprise drone. But there is a use-case for lighting-fast and agile tricopter drones: drone racing. Just look to FPV pilot David Windestal, who is famous for his tricopter racing drone.
“Just watching the videos, you can tell it’s different than the rest,” said Lukaczyk. “It’s a lot smoother. When he wants to whip around, he can start and stop really precisely. There’s so much control.”
That’s especially noticeable in a drone’s yaw. Quadcopters often struggle to control yaw because you’re using the aerodynamic torque that comes off the propeller to control yaw, which is not a lot of torque, said Lukaczyk. Since tricopters have a tilt motor, they have more yaw authority.
It requires less power: When quadcopters move to a new position, they tilt in that direction (forward, backward, left or right). But that tilt requires more power output to prevent the drone from losing altitude. Jupiter’s thrust-vector control, autopilot, and power management systems are able to extend your flight time from a similar model that would otherwise have to tilt.
Additionally, the drone has more hovering efficiency. The front two motors are smaller, while the back motor is big. That gives the drone more hovering efficiency.
So if the Jupiter tricopter is so great, why aren’t there more tricopters?
According to Lukaczyk, there’s one short answer: it’s really hard to build a great tricopter.
“When you dig into it, it’s a complicated design to tilt a motor,” Lukaczyk said. “One-third to one-fourth of the full aircraft weight is in that motor. The tilting mechanism is hard to get right.”
Few drone companies have succeeded at doing it. YI Technology built a tricopter called the Erida, that was originally touted as being ultra-fast, though it’s hard to come by today. 3D Robotics also built a tricopter called the Y6, though that company burned through $100 million in venture capital before pivoting away from consumer drones.
Another challenge with tricopters (and quadcopters): no redundancy with rotors. A tricopter needs three rotors to fly. A quad needs four. But a hex does not need six, nor does an octocopter need eight. With the two latter drones, the drone can still hobble around if one of the rotors breaks in flight and land to safety, as is not the case with quads or tricopters — which is partially a reason why some applications, including industrial applications, avoid using them.
What is Flightwave Aerospace?
FlightWave is a Santa Monica-based drone company that has been on the cutting edge of a number of new technologies, beyond just tricopters. The American drone company also builds an enterprise-grade drone powered by hydrogen fuel cells. And, its FlightWave Edge drone is a long-range drone targeted at mapping, remote patrol and surveillance, and ecosystem monitoring customers
While its Jupiter drone was made available for purchase for $5,000 in 2020, these days, Flightwave Aerospace is focused on its next generation of tricopters: the Edge line.
Its Edge 130 VTOL tricopter is a consumer-priced, military-grade UAS designed for long-range, long-endurance missions. Then, there’s the upgraded Edge 130 Blue, which s a military-grade tricopter for long-range mapping, inspection, surveillance, and reconnaissance.
Designed specifically for government and military applications, the Edge 130 Blue weighs 1,200g, can fly for over 2 hours in forward flight mode and is Blue sUAS 2.0 cleared.