A new Chinese unmanned helicopter might be the industry's first critical step to a functional aerial logistic platform in the near future. This unmanned helicopter, produced by Ziyan UAV (ziyanuav.com), excelled its counterparts by its outstanding performance in load-bearing, safety and speed.
Jeff Bazos, founder and CEO of Amazon.com, promised to millions of audience that Amazon was going to speed up delivery of online orders with delivery drones (Prime Air it is called) on the CBS TV Show 60 Minutes back in 2013. "I know this looks like science fiction," he said, "It's not."
Only two years later, it has become common knowledge in the industry that drones will disrupt the traditional logistic industry. A number of big names, including Walmart, Amazon, UPS and DHL are working together to explore drone deliveries.
However, delivering packages as quickly as possible might not be something that consumer drones like DJI or 3DR can easily accomplish. These quadcopters, despite their good performances in taking selfies or doing aerial shootings, are like toys in the logistic industry. They can barely meet the strict standards as a small aerial logistic platform from the aspects of load-bearing, safety and speed, which results in a huge market gap in professional delivery drones.
That's where Ziyan unmanned helicopter kicks in.
Industrial Unmanned Helicopters vs. Consumer Drones
When people talk about "unmanned aircraft" on the market now, most likely they are referring to consumer quadcopters with multiple propellers on their arms to hover, rotate or fly. Due to the comparatively low technical barriers and open source model, there are numerous quadcopter products on the market. More often than not, when people think of UAVs, the image of quadcopters is what comes to mind. As of now, quadcopters remain the first choice for consumers who are interested in drones.
However, as noted by Jiangping Wang, founder and CEO of Ziyan UAV, the quadcopter is not a new invention, nor the best choice for industrial use. It was eliminated by the U.S. Army back in the 1960s. In recent years, its comparatively low technical barrier has brought it back on stage.
After years of research, the Ziyan team believes that single main rotor unmanned helicopter is the best solution for the future air-logistic use whereas the quadcopter is more for the consumer market.
Due to the low aerodynamic efficiency, quadcopters are faced with performance bottlenecks.
The propeller in a quadcopter and the rotor in a helicopter can both be seen as a wing that provides the pull by their rotational movement. The narrower the wing is, the higher the lift-to-drag ratio will be, which means that with the same level of pull strength, you'll need to conquer less resistance and consume less power.
The induced drag in the wingtip of a wing, a propeller or a rotor is where the largest resistance appears, and also is what consumes the most power. That's why a quadcopter with numerous propellers not only lacks the aerodynamic lift brought by the wings, body or rotor disc in a fixed wing aircraft, but also has pretty low efficiency because of the large number of propellers (and wingtips) and its limited size.
Moreover, the lift efficiency of quadcopters is also impaired due to the fact that it cannot function continuously with a pneumatic high angle-of-attack as the rotors of a helicopter. Also, the opposite direction of the blades in quadcopters has led to downwash turbulence that further decreases the lift efficiency.
These limitations have led to the poor performance of the quadcopters -- low flying speed, short flying time and being not able to upsize or bear large loads.
Under a similar level of power consumption and weight, the performance and economic efficiency of quadcopters cannot really compete with helicopters.
This has led to their differences in application with quadcopters focusing on consumer uses like entertainment or photography and unmanned helicopters being the best solution for the logistics industry. Not surprisingly, the big names that have been working on drones, including Google, DHL and Amazon, and they have not taken quadcopters as an option for transportation.
Moreover, the traditional fixed wing aircraft does not possess the VTOL (vertical take-off and landing) ability and thus requires a take-off runway or an open space for taking off and landing. However, the unmanned helicopters' requirement for taking off or landing is much easier to fulfill due to its VTOL ability. It is also why unmanned helicopters can be applied to a wide range of use.
With all these deficiencies, why are quadcopters still the hostest drone?
According to Wang, the comparatively low technical barrier and existing open source platform of quadcopters enable people to produce quadcopters after optimizing the preexisting development kits without much effort.
For the unmanned helicopters, however, the technical barriers in wing configuration, rotor design and autonomous flight control have stopped people who have no profound experience from entering the industry. This is why quadcopters are all over the market whereas unmanned helicopters are not.
The Five Strengths of Ziyan Unmanned Helicopter
Unlike most of the developers in the industry of drones, the Ziyan team has always focused on the research and development of the integrated manufacturing and smart flight control of unmanned helicopters.
As a matter of fact, the Ziyan team does not take quadcopters as their rivals. According to Jiangping Wang, they have set small or medium size cargo helicopter as their performance benchmarks.
Ziyan is working on three unmanned helicopters, ZYG 800, ZY-50 and ZY-280, which are distinctive in their sizes, loads, and power. The last one is still under research. These products are able to finish beyond-visual-range and accurate point-to-point autonomous flight under high speed and heavy loads.
Compared with the gas-powered medium-size unmanned cargo helicopters, Ziyan's small-sized logistic platform (with a net load less than 15 Kg) is powered by batteries that largely reduce the risk while flying. Moreover, with the technologies in design and manufacturing, Ziyan is able to turn these aircraft into robotics, which can get tasks done for pilots, increasing the marginal cost of safety as well as the added value of their products. For users, it also helps to save time and cost.
Completing a fully autonomous flight envelope with an unmanned helicopter has long been an industry wide challenge. The smart flight control system of unmanned helicopters, in which the Ziyan team has put valiant effort, is an answer to this challenge. Adopting the modular design concept of the Model based development in the aircraft industry as well as advanced flight control algorithm, the Ziyan products are suitable for a variety of industrial uses in harsh environments. The next generation flight control with obstacle avoidance abilities as well as automatic identification and tracking function is now under development, according to Wang.
What exact advantages do Ziyan products have to disrupt the aerial logistics industry?
- The speed of vehicles is vital to its efficiency and also the economical success of logistics. The ZYG 800, the primary product of Ziyan, can reach a cruising speed of 100-130 km/h and a maximum flight speed of 160 km/h, which is four times of that of a quadcopter.
- Also, speed is crucial to safety. The faster these vehicles fly, the less hang time they have and the lower the accident rate will be. In other words, the faster, the safer. Also, with a guaranteed transportation speed, the Ziyan unmanned helicopter can deal with maximum wind levels. This has well excelled the quadcopters that can only deal with a gentle breeze or moderate breeze at best.
- According to Wang, the Ziyan products have been tested along the coastal line since the first flight test. The sea breeze is strong and erratic. Challenging as the wind is, it proves the outstanding performance of the Ziyan unmanned helicopters. "We are now mostly testing the night flights," Wang said.
- Ziyan produces unmanned helicopters that have competitive lightweight bodies of 5 kilograms and at the same time a high net load of 20 kilograms. The maximum take-off weight of ZYG 800 is 40 kilograms. The weight of the quadcopter at this size is 10 kilograms, twice that of ZYG 800's.
- Unmanned helicopters are also known for its long endurance and comparatively low power consumption. Powered mostly by battery, ZYG 800 is highly efficient. With 10-kilogram cargo capacity and the battery can last over 30 minutes.
- The high speed and long endurance has assured a longer voyage of Ziyan unmanned helicopters. They have longer flying distances, the shortest of which is over 30 kilometers. This flying distance alone is industry leading and much better than the claimed approximate 15 kilometer flying distance of most quadcopters.
4. Industrial flight control systems
- The Ziyan team has put in continuous effort in researching and developing reliable smart flight control systems, that can complete the fully autonomous flight. Due to the absence of airworthiness regulations on drones, from modeling and stimulation to the design process based on model, the Ziyan team has kept their work in line with the airworthiness design criteria in the aviation industry. From the aerodynamic performance analysis, subcomponent modeling, automatic code generation, requirement-based testing, Hardware-in-the-loop Simulation (HILS) to test flights, Ziyan has adopted the regulations in the aviation industry to develop the flight control system for industrial use.
5. Smart system
- The navigation enhancement with high precision, laser radar (Lidar), infrared/visible light camera, as well as many other advanced sensor fusion technology have brought strong perception to the next generation Ziyan avionics platform. Ziyan's independent visual processing system enables its products to accomplish real-time target identification and tracking. With the latest deep learning algorithms, Ziyan's unmanned helicopter can be a smart control aircraft that can actually think.
- "Ziyan's advanced integration and development technologies are why its products have long endurance, high bearing capacity and speed. These technologies are well adopted from the advanced research and development system in aviation," Wang said.
- As the logistic industry is highly concerned with cost, Ziyan has integrated the resources in Pearl River Delta, successfully decreasing the manufacturing cost of the control flight system as well as the whole aircraft. This enables Ziyan to bring highly competitive unmanned helicopter products to the market at a comparatively low cost.
The Ultimate UAV Dream
"This is a true unmanned aircraft that we are developing, not some kind of toy that you play for a day or two and leave it behind, or a something that will create safety concerns. It is a safe, high-speed unmanned helicopter that could be applied to the logistics industry perfectly, " said Wang. He is well aware that the progress and development in the aviation industry has consumed lives and thus safety remains his first concern. "The highest reliability equals the lowest cost," he said.
From Wang's perspective, the breakthrough that the logistics industry has been longing for will never come if they keep working on quadcopters. Some logistics companies have realized that unmanned helicopters are promising and Ziyan will be glad to provide a system integration solution for them with its system.
Ziyan has already started to provide customized products to clients all around the world. Wang does not see Ziyan as a hardware manufacturer of unmanned helicopters, but a solution provider with the ability of self-developed manufacturing, producing and system integration. This is also why Ziyan is able to integrate hardware and software, as well as design and technology to lower the production cost and use-cost.
The flying platform as well as the logistics platform that Ziyan provide will open to small to medium sized unmanned helicopters, which ensure a high compatibility of these platforms to meet the different features and needs of clients.
Jiangping Wang has an extraordinary love and profound understanding of aircrafts since the 1990s. According to him, the booming UAV industry is in China enables, say, amateurs, to enter the industry. Unmanned aircrafts, however, are still something that should be taken seriously. "If you want to make an aircraft, you need to research, to develop and to test it, not to show it on slides. I am building a aeronautical enterprise, not a toy company," he said.
In April 2016, Ziyan ZYG 800 has entered the commercial market. More Ziyan products will be coming out this November on the 11th China International Aviation & Aerospace Exhibition. For Wang and his Ziyan team, this is merely the start. He expects to see the application of the Ziyan platform worldwide and to bring the "aerial logistics system" as Jeff Bazos noted from science fiction to reality.