Here Come The Drones

It used to be that to design and build a flying machine was an expensive endeavor, what with pilots, wind tunnel tests, prototypes, etc. Not any more though - welcome to the brave new world of Unmanned Autonomous Systems (UAS) or Unmanned Autonomous Vehicles (UAV) or, more popularly, simply drones. How did we get to this point and where is it going? What role, if any, will Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) play in this drone future?

Quadcopter DroneQuadcopter DroneBy Airbunny (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

While remote control aircraft have been around for decades, the leap to autonomous vehicles was finally made possible by affordable, miniaturized digital flight controllers. Here is yet another example of Moore's Law feeding small, cheap, computing power to make the seemingly impossible happen in the air. Combine with secure, reliable communications and you have a recipe for a revolution.

The steady progression and affordability (again thanks in part to Moore's Law) of CNC machines and, more recently, 3D printing mean that building electro-mechanical devices, such as drones, has never been easier or more accessible.

But wait, there's more. Computer-Aided Design (CAD) software tools have also progressed to the point of being accessible and affordable to anyone ready to take flight with drone ideas.

CFD Simulation of a Quadcopter in FlightCFD Simulation of a Quadcopter in FlightShows streamlines colored by velocity magnitude

The one conspicuous absence at least from quadcopter-like drones is any notion of aerodynamic efficiency. Most quadcopters look like exo-skeletons, missing a sleek aerodynamic skin. If drones are the future of delivery, as Amazon will have us believe, then aerodynamic efficiency, i.e., maximizing lift and minimizing drag, will become a key feature of future drones. This will be the moment when CFD can step up and provide virtual aerodynamic analysis to keep the drone revolution flying efficiently along.