Consumer drones get fixed wings

Fixed-wing drones, such as the one from Parrot, provide a more alluring video stream and better flight-time stamina

Consumer drones get fixed wings
Brian Craig

As holiday gadget season kicks in, we are about to be inundated with gift ideas. And for those used to seeing, or indeed flying quadcopter drones, looking as one would imagine aerial food mixers to appear with four motors and props at the end of four arms, there’s a new form-factor—tailless, single-wing drones.

At hobbyist flying fields, more of the fuselage-lacking wing-style drones, reminiscent of Northrop’s B2 stealth bomber, are appearing. And while multi-rotors are by no means off the field, some of the more experienced flyers have taken to piloting and/or building flying wings.

Existing model aircraft designers include TBS and Zeta.

The reasons for the transposition from quads includes faster speeds; more efficient battery life, which equates to longer flight times; and new skills to learn. (Those who have been flying multi-rotors for a while might have exhausted the novelty.)

And with stability controls there is arguably more exciting video results in first-person view—that’s the immersive drone eye-view with signal down to goggles. Video feeds from the fixed wings can be more swooping and bird-like than those from multi-rotors.

A further benefit is that in comparison to traditional multi-rotor, propeller-powered drones, the fixed wing machines look more like model airplanes, so conceivably they won’t draw the same foot-stomping wrath from anti-drone types, purple-faced and incensed over perceived privacy violations or other slights.

Parrot's consumer-friendly fixed-wing drone

French model aircraft-maker Parrot is the latest to offer the form factor, and it is the first to deliver a fully consumer-friendly one in its DISCO model. The drone requires no model-building skills, and it autonomously flies itself, reducing the learning curve. It will be available this month.

I had a chance to fly it recently at a media launch and crash-course flight school run by Parrot airframe and electronics designers in the California desert. Parrot kindly picked up my accommodation and some food and drink. I found the sophisticated beast to be a docile, pleasure to fly—unlike some tricky, but nevertheless fun, alternatives—and can recommend it as a first flying wing, or indeed first drone.

b 2 spirit original U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Bennie J. Davis III

The B2.

Jack Northrop, who founded the Northrop Corporation in 1939, chose the flying wing, with its missing fuselage and 100 percent wing design (the one used currently in his full-size, angular B2) not for its aerodynamics. The flying wing was developed for its easy-to-hide-from-radar properties. However, the triangular wing shape looks cool, so is suitable for our purposes, too.

Drone vendor Parrot gets around flying issues, caused in part by geometry-specific dependence on center of gravity, with software and fine-tuning. The company purchased Swiss commercial drone maker senseFly, known for precision surveying with similar-to-DISCO-looking fixed-wing drones, in 2012. Knowledge sharing ensued then.

The company also has ties with Swiss drone image-to-mapping software maker Pix4D. Both operations are active in current, commercial drone operations such as agriculture and inspections.

The tech here, too, is sophisticated. For example, Parrot’s DISCO takes advantage of cameras and SONAR for landing. The SONAR bounces signals off the ground at low altitudes to determine height above ground for autonomous landings.

One slight drawback to the consumer-pitched DISCO product is the cost, which at $1,300 is more than self-building flying-wing kits already out there—although comparable to some high-end quadcopters.

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