Drone X Challenge winners share the secrets of their success

The Drone X Challenge is pushing the frontiers of UAV technology. Tom Batchelor spoke to the teams that shared this year’s US$1m prize

The competition
The DXC 2020 competition was organised in three phases. The first, which saw $320,000 split between the shortlisted teams, focused on the design aspects, with applicants required to submit a technical proposal. In the second phase, developers demonstrated how their drone would function, including providing a video of the proposed design, which attracted a $300,000 research and development grant split between the applicants. The third and final phase saw teams home in on specific criteria set by the organisers, with a requirement to prove that the final product had commercial potential. Advisor Anas Zeineddine explained: “In order to support them with the development, the shortlisted teams for each phase were provided with R&D grants that would enable them to continue on to the next stage to develop their product in the laboratories, get the materials, get the necessary manpower. In the second phase, the development phase, the shortlisted teams were given grants and then they further developed the projects into a delivery-based drone. In the final stage, the top teams were selected based on the various categories that we were looking for – fixed-wing or multi-rotor drones that are powered by either hydrocarbon or battery.”

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Co-Winner UAVita’s Discovery drone was designed for multiple uses, including transportation of cargo UAVita

The brainchild of Abu Dhabi-based innovation hub Krypto Labs, the Drone X Challenge 2020 (DXC 2020) awarded its top prize jointly to a team based in Taiwan and another split between Ukraine and Canada after a three-year testing and development process that attracted more than 1,000 applicants from 55 countries. The aim of DXC 2020 was to develop transportation and delivery drones that were not currently available in the commercial market, seeking global start-ups as well as engineers, entrepreneurs and students with the raw ingredients to develop a successful UAV and the potential to scale up the technology.

Setting the challenge
Krypto Labs was clear throughout the competition that the DXC panel was not looking for readily available technologies or companies already in advanced stages of drone design. Rather, it wanted to encourage creative ideas and concepts that had not been successfully deployed before. Developers were encouraged to apply for one or more of four categories: fixed-wing drones powered by batteries (with a minimum payload of 15kg and minimum endurance of 45 minutes),

fixed-wing powered by hydrocarbons or hybrid fuel (50kg payload, 360 minute endurance), multi-rotor drones powered by either battery (50kg payload, 45 minute endurance) or hydrocarbon/hybrid (50kg payload, 180 minute endurance).

  Launched in October 2018, DXC's first research and development grants, worth $320,000, were awarded in May 2019 to shortlisted developers to test the potential of each proposal, with additional grants handed out during the second phase of the project in March 2020. When COVID-19 hit, the process was delayed, largely due to difficulties for the developers in accessing their labs, as well as delays in international shipments of key parts and pandemic-linked financial pressures. But in January of this year the application window closed and the winners were announced in May.

The prize of success
The US$1m prize fund was shared between a team of engineers from the Industrial Technology Research Institute (ITRI) in Taiwan, who developed a multi-rotor hybrid (gas and battery powered) drone capable of carrying a payload of at least 50kg for three hours, and UAVita, a start-up company based in Canada and Ukraine, which developed a fixed-wing drone powered by hydrocarbons and capable of carrying a payload of up to 80kg for six hours. The next stage will see the stakeholders – local investment companies that are working towards the commercialisation of drones for delivery purposes – teaming up with ITRI and UAVita to advance their designs.

Taiwan-based co-winner ITRI’s large commercial drone runs off a ground generator and is continuously connected via a long powerline ITRIf

“We had various assessments and teams that visited the sites and tested the drones, so they went through a very rigorous testing process,” explained Anas Zeineddine, a former executive director of Krypto Labs who now serves as an advisor to the innovation hub. He told AIR International: “It concluded with two teams winning – one a multi-rotor and the other a fixed-wing team. These teams have split the prize and the next step, at the discretion of the stakeholders, is to work with the teams on potential applications in terms of commercialisation and further product development.”

Regular competitions
UAV competitions are nothing new to the industry, with challenges regularly held to encourage development of both the software and hardware needed to improve drone performance. The aerospace, defence and security company Leonardo has launched its own drone contest in collaboration with six Italian universities, to encourage the development of artificial intelligence in unmanned systems.

The Leonardo Drone Contest began in November 2019 and is scheduled to finish in 2022, with the first race held last September in Turin. A second software-only competition due to be held at Purdue University’s UAV Research and Test Facility in West Lafayette, Indiana, next March will put drones through their paces in an indoor competition that will see them fly autonomously and follow a model car while avoiding multiple moving objects. The 2022 IEEE Autonomous Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) Competition will task UAVs with following a target object at a desired distance – the winner being the drone that manages to do so for the longest length of time.

Standing out from the crowd
The DXC 2020 challenge is unique in that it is designed to identify emerging technology and incubate it in an attempt to make it commercially viable. “Criteria number one was actually meeting the technical requirements in terms of payload and endurance,” Zeineddine said. “Number two was pursuing the innovative technologies that were used for developing the drone. Number three was the compactness of the actual drone itself – having a drone that can lift a heavy weight, but also having it small enough in size. Additional criteria included fuel efficiency, the stability of the flight and the safety of the drone in the event that there needed to be an emergency landing.”

Despite the progress made in recent years in electric and hydrogen power systems, when it came to setting criteria, the DXC organisers opted to allow submissions using any fuel type – including traditional hydrocarbons – to facilitate the widest possible intake. Zeineddine noted: “Some developers based theirs on battery power, others were on fuel, so we kept it broad to be able to accommodate any type of fuel that is used for powering the machine.”

He said the UAE was a fitting place for a UAV competition since drones were “very popular” in the Gulf: “There are a lot of companies that have a lot of uses for drones. It's a region that is adopting technology a lot more than other places and other areas.

“That's why we focus on the commercial aspect, because it's not about having some team in Taiwan or Canada or Ukraine or wherever win a prize, it is about getting them to establish here and work on the commercialisation that meets specific requirements – it all depends on what you as an investor or stakeholder want to do with that technology.”

Krypto Labs, which offers business incubation and acceleration programmes, corporate innovation and funding for start-ups, was established in 2017 and launched the drone challenge a year later. Since then, the company has organised several competitions to help existing start-ups transform their ideas into viable products – in education and space technology as well as drones.

Explaining the rationale behind the DXC project, Zeineddine said: “Our mandate was always to support entrepreneurs, to build our network and to prove that you can develop the drone technology without necessarily having all the staffing and the resourcing and the laboratory. You can capitalise on existing teams and get them to develop new technology to meet your requirements, so that was the role that we played.”

As for whether there will be future drone challenges, Zeineddine said he was still “aspiring to continue undertaking these projects, whether it's in drones or in space tech or other areas” using a new innovation enabler he has founded called innovaMENA, which aims to support and develop the start-up ecosystem in the Middle East and beyond.

Saleh Al Hashemi, managing director of Krypto Labs until May 2021, said drones had the potential to “disrupt major industries and our very notion of delivery transportation. By producing drones that carry heavy payloads, we can truly revolutionise the means of traditional and current transportation systems”. Commenting on the final phase of the challenge, he said: “Through DXC 2020, we are pushing the frontiers of drone innovation…  and we are proud to be contributing to the UAE’s ecosystem by encouraging start-ups to reach new horizons, where the limits are endless and their products can make an impact that is bound to change the way we go about our daily lives.”

UAVita’s Discovery drone is a fixed-wing UAV designed for multiple uses, including transportation of cargo, protection and monitoring. It has a payload capacity of 80kg and can be controlled by an onboard autopilot or manually by a remote operator. It is designed for complex short- or long-range missions where payload capacity and safety are paramount, and is capable of flying distances of around 600km, depending on weather conditions, with a cruise speed of 100km/hour.

UAVita's fixed-wing Discovery is the work of a joint Ukrainian/Canadian team UAVita

Discovery was developed for agricultural crop spraying, hence the decision to design it as a fixed-wing UAV. “Due to the lift force of the wing, fixed-wing UAV platforms have a significant advantage over multi-rotor UAV platforms,” explained Yuri Pederiy, co-founder of UAVita Systems. Speaking to AIR International about the project, he said that the engineering team had extensive experience in manned fixed-wing aviation and utilised its knowledge of industry data and testing and its understanding of the manufacturing process and supply chain in the development of Discovery. UAVita recently announced its newest family member, the Enterprise E-340 UAV, which has a payload capacity of 340kg and has a maximum flight plan duration of 4,500km. Both platforms are powered by custom-developed Mission Possible software, which is designed to make operating the aircraft user friendly – the developers claim that a flight plan can be prepared in as little as two minutes.

Pederiy said winning DXC 2020 has “put a significant spotlight on our technology and our solutions. It’s given us recognition and credibility to tell our story and we’ve already had the opportunity to start discussions with a number of potential international clients and partners. We will be investing the prize money into R&D to further develop platforms in the higher payload range. Krypto Labs has been incredible to work with through the entire process.”

The primary focus for UAVita drones is agricultural crop spraying and monitoring, infrastructure surveillance and security for pipelines and power lines, as well as logistics with inter-city cargo delivery. In 2020, the company completed a successful pilot project with a gas pipeline operator to detect gas leakages and provide security surveillance. The same year, UAVita collaborated with a package delivery company to transport cargo over a 100km route. Pederiy said results from both collaborations were successful and were leading to further projects including an expansion of the cargo delivery over additional routes in 2021.

“The commercial UAV market will grow 56% (compound annual growth rate) over the next five years and much of this growth will be dependent on each country’s drone legislation including UAV certification and registration and airspace reservation for UAV operations,” he added. “As the industry develops and matures, UAVita will be the leading provider of safe fixed-wing high payload and flight endurance UAV solutions.”

Taiwan-based ITRI’s prize-winning drone demonstrated to the judges that it was capable of flying for 180 minutes in what the panel said was an “impressive” flight, while carrying a 50kg payload in hybrid-hydrocarbon-powered hovering mode. The MMSL-H-50/180 hexa-copter drone has 18 propellers:12 around the outside and six in      an inner ring. The electric-powered, high-efficiency direct drive brushless motors have a thrust boost capability, and robust control means it performs well in winds of up to 27kts. The UAV can be used for a variety of tasks, including the support of infrastructure maintenance jobs, such as carrying tools or other items, and it can lift a 40-litre tank to perform chemical spray jobs for agricultural farms or golf courses. ITRI has also demonstrated the drone’s potential application in tethered mode to carry surveillance and communication equipment. However, it is likely to be a year or more until the UAV enters the commercial market since heavy-utility drones take time to demonstrate they meet the necessary regulations and standards, ITRI said.

ITRI’s MMSL-H-50/180 hexa-copter drone has 18 propellers, 12 on the outside and six in an inner ring ITRI

The team’s latest prize-winning UAV project relies on hybrid technology, powered by a combination of gasoline and electric battery. “Most multi-rotor drones today are directly powered by the onboard batteries,” explained Dr Wen-Yang Peng, deputy general director of ITRI Mechanical and Mechatronics System Research Laboratories. “However, the energy density of the current commercially available lithium batteries yields limited contribution to the flight duration if more than 30 minutes is requested with a moderate payload like 20kg or above.

“With regards to the challenge goal, the gas-powered hybrid power approach is adopted to keep the advantages of the high energy-density of gas and the agility of the electric powered propulsion. In the future, we may change the fuel or use a mix of green fuel to reduce carbon emissions. Its emissions are better than most fuel-powered aeroplanes and we believe there is still some space to improve its efficiency and noise issues.”

ITRI has several other drone types in its portfolio, including a small, pure-electric UAV designed for agricultural spraying, aerial photography or use by police and fire services. It has a maximum payload of 16kg and an endurance of up to half-an-hour. Its medium-sized drone, suited to more extreme environments such as disaster relief, can fly similar distances but carries double the payload. ITRI’s large commercial drone has a payload of 30-50kg and is designed to stay in the air for between eight and 24 hours. Unusually, this UAV runs off a ground generator and is continuously connected via a long powerline, enabling it to remain airborne for long periods. Its applications include facilitating high-altitude communications or remote surveillance. A secondary large hybrid drone with a similar payload but endurance of around one hour combines a lightweight internal combustion engine and a compact integrated starter and generator. Applications include long-range power grid inspection and agricultural crop maintenance on both level and hilly terrain. The octocopter, which can hover up to 45 minutes at 30kg payload – over three times the endurance of a drone powered solely by lithium battery – was named a CES 2019 Innovation Award honoree in the Robotics and Drones category.

The other competitors
DXC 2020 was the first of its kind in the Middle East, but the challenge has paved the way for UAV innovators to emerge. Chief among them are the developers who made the competition shortlist, including German company Weslax, Vulcan UAV from the United Kingdom, Forward Robotics from Canada, Richen Power and Autoflight from China, Avimech International Aircraft from the US and LAUREN (Tecnalia Electric Aircraft Lab) from Spain. Vulcan UAV, for example, has an existing range of drones, from off-the-shelf airframes to custom-built industrial aircraft. The Gloucestershire-based company stated that, unlike its competitors, “we do not produce fixed products and offer them to market in the hope they are suitable, but instead specify and optimise systems to best suit the specific application and requirements of the customer. This can range from minor customisation of an existing platform to a fully bespoke ‘ground up’ development.” Its drones were designed for various applications, including jet washing ultra-large wind turbines in the North Sea and planting trees using a laser altimeter and GPS for precision low level autonomous flying and precise positioning of each sapling. The current system is capable of planting 600 trees in 10 minutes. Elsewhere, Tucson, Arizona-based Avimech’s drones include the Dragonfly DFU, which is powered with renewable hydrogen peroxide and claims to have a lower ground noise than a standard hairdryer (72dB versus 85dB). The carbon-free energy source means the exhaust consists of water vapour and oxygen, and the aircraft can go from ’dark cockpit’ to airborne within 30 seconds.