UC Aerospace Engineering Student Awarded Best Presentation Honor for Small Heavy-Lift Drone Design

The unmanned aerial system (UAS) industry is taking off. Industries and universities are investing in UAS, also known as drones, more than ever before, and research is needed to keep up with the growing demand.

University of Cincinnati aerospace engineering master’s student Justin Ouwerkerk is exploring additional uses for heavy-lift drones, specifically looking at small unmanned aerial systems or SUAS.

Heavy-lift drones have a vast array of uses. They can carry anything from cameras to medical supplies to storage tanks. But their size can sometimes be limiting. Designs that use smaller platforms could reduce cost and time in the manufacturing process.

Ouwerkerk discussed his design for smaller heavy-lift drones in his thesis presentation, “Design Optimization for a Heavy Lift SUAS,” which won Best Presentation at the regional American Institute of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AIAA)/American Society of Mechanical Engineering (ASME) awards banquet on May 22. 

The presentation, which Ouwerkerk delivered at the Dayton Engineering Science Symposium, covered the design and development of a test stand to test motors in a coaxial configuration. This coaxial, or stacked, configuration reduces the amount of material needed to carry eight motors. Ouwerkerk designed a platform that stacks the motors on top of each other, still having eight motors per drone while occupying the circumference of just four.

Additionally, the design protects against potential motor failures. In testing, Ouwerkerk showed that when a motor failed, the drone could continue to perform tasks.

These smaller designs will greatly reduce manufacturing costs of drones, but they will also be more suitable for indoor environments, capable of maneuvering in tight spaces. A standard heavy-lift platform drone can be nearly five feet in diameter. Ouwerkerk’s small UAS is only 28 inches across and less than 10 inches tall.

Ouwerkerk’s research is ongoing. Future work will focus on integrating technologies like manipulator arms and swarming capabilities. But it’s not all lab tests. Recently, Ouwerkerk and a team of UC students implemented his design in a drone that took first place in a regional competition.

As drones continue to enter fields such as healthcare, emergency response and agriculture, researchers must adapt to diverse landscapes. Ouwerkerk’s design is one step forward in this rapidly changing industry.