12 Mechanical Engineering undergraduates from the National University of Singapore (NUS) are working with Farnell element14 to design and build flapping wing micro air vehicles (MAVs) with the aim of participating in two major design competitions in 2018. 'Team MechFly' hope to enter the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition (SAFMC) in March and April of next year, followed by the Taiwan Innovative Unmanned Aircraft Design Competition (TIUADC) in April.
Farnell element14's associated PLC Multicomp has provided tools to assist the team in the design and build process, including soldering equipment, cutting devices and essential components from industry leading brands such as Duratool and Tenma.
We caught up with the team to find out more about the challenge and their association with Farnell element14 and Multicomp...
How did Team MechFly come together?
The flapping wing Micro Air Vehicle (MAV) project started in 2012, spearheaded by Dr Chan Woei Leong, a research scientist at Temasek Laboratories. The current team was formed in July 2017 by individuals who have an interest in air vehicles, with the objective of streamlining and enhancing the design of the MechFly from previous batches.
Team MechFly currently consists of 11 undergraduates from the NUS Faculty of Engineering. We currently have 10 Mechanical Engineers working on the structure and flight and 1 Electrical Engineer working on the flight control of the project.
Tell us about the team’s current project(s) – what are you hoping to achieve in the next 12 months?
We will participate in the Taiwan Innovative Unmanned Aircraft Design Competition in Mar 2018 (tentatively) and then the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition in early Apr 2018. In between, we will be involved in conducting flight tests, mastering flight control and building more workable prototypes.
Why has the team decided to focus on Micro Air Vehicles?
There has been an increasingly feverish interest in Micro Air Vehicles (MAVs) in the fields of military defence and environmental sustainability. Environment scientists and military forces have steered the demand for smaller air vehicles with greater agility that can be easily transported and operated by control personnel. As compared to the conventional drones/fixed wing air vehicles, ornithopters can take one smaller sizes without compromising efficiency, allowing for greater versatility and agility.
Tell us about the technology you’re using in the project – how was it selected and developed?
We used a 3-axis CNC Milling Machine to fabricate most of the structural parts of the platform. Power tools and hand tools are also required for mechanical processes such as grinding and cutting of small parts.
The on-board electronics, including the servos, speed controllers, and motors, are some of the smallest in the market. A single cell Lithium Polymer (LiPo) battery is used to power the on-board electronics.
Since our platform is tailless, it is inherently unstable. We chose to integrate Lisa/S Autopilot to actively stabilize the MAV. The Lisa/S Autopilot is the smallest full-fledge autopilot in the World. Hence, we selected it because it is the most compatible autopilot system available in the market for our small platform.
What are some of the key practical applications of MAVs?
Due to their size and agility, MAVs are among the most versatile air vehicles in the world. The agility of the vehicle allows users to inspect environments that are inaccessible by land vehicles or hazardous for on-site inspection. For environmental applications, MAVs could be utilised for pollutant samples collection, allowing for the cleanup process to be quicker and safer. The small size of MAV also allows this class of flight vehicle to be operated both indoors and outdoors.
What are some of the biggest challenges you’ve faced so far?
One of the key challenges was to design a wing that would generate sufficient lift for the MechFly platform. As prototypes from previous batches are starkly different from this years’, there were many new issues such as experimenting with wingspan and autopilot configurations. To overcome this challenge, our team is constantly acquainting ourselves with new programmes to better equip ourselves against unfamiliar problems.
What are some of your biggest achievements to date?
The prototype earlier this year was entered into the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition (SAFMC) and the Taiwan Innovative Unmanned Aircraft Design Competition (TIUADC). This prototype earned the team several awards - including the Special Recognition Award in the SAFMC Unconventional Category, plus the Championship and 2nd Runner-Up in the TIUADC Flapping Wing Category. Our prototype was also featured in cyberpioneer, the official news website of the Singapore Ministry of Defence and the Singapore Armed Forces.
How did Farnell element14 become involved with the project?
For the earlier projects in previous years, we had frequently purchased tools from Farnell element14 and were comfortable with the high quality and reliable tools. This year, we intend to continue our usage of Farnell element14’s tools and build a relationship with the company so that we may gain access to a wider network of manufacturers and consumers with similar interests.
What does it mean to have support from a company like Farnell element14 on this project?
Other than obtaining tools that will aid us in our fabrication process, gaining support from Farnell element14, a company with a broad network of manufacturers and customers, opens Team MechFly up to multiple channels of publicity towards like-minded enthusiasts. We hope to raise awareness and appreciation towards ornithopters, an uncommon mechanism of MAVs.
Have any other partners or organisation supported this project? If so, how?
As of October, Micron Wings, an Australia-based supplier of components and materials particularly for Micro Air Vehicles, had provided us some materials such as piano wires and carbon rods. These materials will be used in the fabrication of our wing. 1BitSquared, an American-based company, has offered us a discount during our purchase of their autopilots.
In the near future, we aim to contact engineering companies to help offset the costs of competition fees and flight travel. Earlier this year, the team participated in SAFMC and TIUADC under the sponsorship of Airbus, and we will continue to seek their support in the coming years.
What preparations will you undertake before entering the TIUADC and SAFMC challenges?
In the period leading up to the competition, we will focus on equipping some of the members with the technical skills to become the pilot. On top of running flight tests, we will be involved in crafting reports and presentations to be pitched during the competition. We will also frame our competition strategies to tackle the criteria set by the Singapore Amazing Flying Machine Competition panel, which include themes and storylines.
What are you hoping to gain from entering these challenges?
For the project, one of our objectives is to promote the MechFly platform to Unmanned Aircraft Vehicle (UAV) enthusiasts and to gain recognition from the community. As engineers, in the rigourous process of running analyses, fabrications and flight tests for the competitions, we hope to gain practical experience which cannot be replicated in a classroom setting. This practical experience is crucial for us to become versatile engineers who have good intuition of structures and mechanics.
What do you feel are your greatest strengths as a team?
Our team’s unique trait is the diversity in terms of field of study, level of experience and nationalities. Such diversity is rare in the field of unarmed air vehicles (UAV) and has empowered us to solve and discuss problems holistically.
If our readers wish to follow your progress in undertaking this challenge, how can they do so?
Our Facebook page is updated regularly with a variety of content including progress reports and related articles. That's the best way to stay in touch with us and gain an introduction to our work with MAVs.