How one company is pushing the boundaries of UAV technology

It has been a hundred years since a plane without a pilot first cut through the sky. But what sounds like a magical feat is actually reality — it is an innovation changing the world in industries as varied as healthcare and retail.

Unmanned aerial vehicles, commonly known as drones, have long been used by militaries around the world to prevent sending human pilots on missions that are too “dull, dirty or dangerous.”

However, drones are also becoming crucial tools far away from the calculating intensity of the situation room. One aerial consulting firm estimated two million consumer drones were sold in 2016 alone, and private companies are using the vehicles to deliver online shopping, beam internet into remote areas and take stunning aerial photos of landscapes far and wide.

In the words of one pioneer of the modern UAV industry; “We’re entering the drone age.”

The rapidly growing industry of drone creation relies on aircraft manufacturing, hardware and software development to weave together to ensure the autonomous planes can carry out their mission, whatever it may be. But most modern developers specialize in just one or two stages of this process, which leaves room for delay, error or high costs as the product changes hands. 

In the bustling metropolis of Bangalore, India, a 22-man company is working to change that.

Absolute Composites, a company founded by engineer Raghav Reddy, uses composite materials like carbon fiber, honeycomb sandwich panels and innovative manufacturing processes to build extremely fuel-efficient UAVs in differing sizes that can carry heavier loads and fly further than any technology of its kind has before.

Their clients include several major Indian drone research organizations, which develop technology that will aid the country’s military, lead national scientific discovery and expand the boundaries of aerospace technology.

Reddy said their aircrafts will transform cargo delivery, which can improve human security both in humanitarian aid and in defense by delivering goods without putting a human pilot in danger.

For example, said Reddy, remote areas across the globe could be serviced by drone delivery, helping to bring in medical or relief aid where it wouldn’t have been possible before. One could use drones to fight raging fires, transport critical supplies to those stranded by flooding, monitor crops and everything in between.

Absolute Composites designs the aircraft, uses ultra-lightweight and low-cost composite materials to build it and then tests the vehicle before approving it for use in the field. Reddy and his team are alongside their product for every step of the development process, which is unique in the still-growing field of UAV production. 

For Absolute Composites, ThinkPads are the perfect tool for each step of their development process. Reddy said his team is constantly on the go. That’s why it’s so important that their laptops withstand all obstacles thrown in the way, even in the harshest of conditions. When they’re at home in the lab, they use the ThinkPads extensively for mathematical modelling and simulation.

And for each drone they build, the ThinkPad serves as the master control. When testing the vehicles, they will load a pre-developed “ground control station” onto the device and then use it to control and navigate the UAVs from the ground.

The team is working on building drones that will be able to fly through the Earth’s stratosphere, Reddy said. So unsurprisingly, the drone will often fly out of their range of sight. The team plots GPS coordinates and plug in height instructions on the ThinkPad—used as a ground control unit—to ensure the aircraft goes exactly where they intended it to go, whether or not they can see it with the naked eye.

For Reddy, reaching for the sky has been a lifelong dream — one that has brought its fair share of challenges, both technical and financial.

“I got into composites because it was a natural choice for aircraft manufacturing, because with these materials you can start with very low capital,” Reddy said. “And to be honest, I started with an investment of about $40.” He bought hand tools, carbon fiber and some resin and set up shop in his kitchen in 2005. This was the beginning of the project that would eventually become Absolute Composites.

“Friends started joining me and support came from all directions,” Reddy said. At the time, he noted, even basic materials like a radio controller or a propeller were difficult to obtain in India.

“It was difficult for us to import anything around that kind of technology. We used to rely on relatives and friends coming from the U.S. We would send information and just wait six months to a year to get any small equipment,” he said. 

Now, things are a little easier for Absolute Composites. But that doesn’t mean Reddy and his team are going to stop pushing boundaries.

As of now, their aircraft can last more than seven times as long in flight and can carry 20 times as heavy of loads as what is commercially available. They hope to continue refining their product and creating more innovative solutions to the problems of their nation and the world. After all, the sky’s the limit.

 

Rahil Arora leads Lenovo’s Customer Stories Program.