Innovation profile: Top Flight Technologies extends flight time with hybrid technology

By Marcus Foote

Top Flight Technologies is a start-up company out of MIT with significant experience in Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs). The team is comprised of many leaders from the Federal Aviation Administration, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Georgia Institute of Technology, and other aerospace and software innovators.

Top Flight Technologies is aimed to decimate the universal challenges for UAVs. First on the chopping block are endurance and payload restrictions.

The Airborg H6 1500 is Top Flight Technologies’ flagship UAV. It has a flying time of two and a half hours on just one gallon of gasoline, which is absurdly long for today’s mass market UAVs. This extended fly time is even possible while carrying 20 pounds of cargo. Typical UAVs are limited to around 4 pounds at which point takeoff becomes a struggle. The Airborg H6 makes long-distance flights and heavy cargo a reality. These features show promising applications in aerial imaging, mapping, inspection, object tracking, remote sensing, and security, among other applications previously unthinkable with the limited flight time of traditional multicopter style UAVs.

Top Flight Technologies accomplishes this long fly time by using their own Hybrid Propulsion Engine to power the hex-rotor aircraft. This hybrid system has an energy density 8 times of the lithium polymer battery used for 95% of other UAVs. The fuel engine provides steady propulsion while the battery provides needed burst energy on demand. This hybrid system also allows for extremely low down time between missions, as no charging is required.

The Airborg is also capable of fully autonomous flight. It boasts an onboard flight data recorder and 8 megabit camera (with HD downlink) for mapping and object tracking or avoidance applications. Top Flight’s Advanced Autopilot System continually tunes and calibrates the propulsion system to control the aircraft during both manual and automated missions. With the amazing cargo capability, the Airborg can easily be outfitted with capabilities for real-time multi-spectral imaging, long range communication, remote sensing, GPS tagging, 4G network communications, information storage, and additional batteries. This wide variety of application specific features makes the Airborg extremely adaptable.

Top Flight Technologies’ chief operating officer describes the expected first applications of the UAV to be for agricultural and pipeline inspections. These applications currently have costs of around $1000 per hour by using a traditional helicopter. The Airborg would offer significant savings in these fields at a one-time cost of less than $50,000.

Academic collaboration is key to Top Flight Technologies’ innovations. Doctor Sanjay Sarma from MIT recently joined the company as Chief Technology Advisor to lead innovations to the hybrid UAV technology and add robotics expertise to future innovations. Many other professors from MIT, Georgia Tech and researchers with military backgrounds actively advise the company on their innovations. Eric N. Johnson is one such professor that runs his own UAV research facility at the Georgia Institute of Technology. This facility operates a wide variety of UAV technologies in both fixed wing and rotary wing styles. Dr. Johnson’s research focuses on vision aided navigation, decentralized control, obstacle avoidance, and human interaction with UAVs, all of which is directly applicable to Top Flight Technologies continued innovations.

The work Dr. Johnson has done on real time vision based aircraft navigation is especially applicable to Top Flight Technologies’ product. It is impractical for detailed models of flying environments to be made before every mission, especially when the environment can extend for hundreds of miles during a multi-hour mission.

Dr. Johnson’s work in vision based aircraft navigation will be essential to ensuring the safe operation of any UAV for extended periods of time. The navigation is increasingly important on the completely autonomous missions that Top Flight Technologies’ Airborg H6 UAV is capable of. Taking an example of the expected pipeline inspection application mentioned earlier, one would expect a UAV to record imagery for every foot of the pipeline, while making sure to not crash into trees and other obstacles, and ideally choosing a perspective that trees and other obstacles don’t block the view of the pipeline.

A unique aspect of Top Flight Technologies’ business idea is that they realize this expansion of UAV applications includes applications that have no experience with UAVs. For this reason, Top Flight Technologies offers Consulting, Training, Data Collection, and Analysis for using UAVs. Top Flight Technologies offers assistance in exploring what ways the cost-effective UAV can revolutionize any application, including many that already have incredible history of using UAVs.

Top Flight Technologies also is committed to safe operation for manual missions through certification programs. Assistance in planning and demonstration of data collection and analysis is specialized to every project to choose the best sensors, data links, storage, and post-processing options. In collaboration with many of their advisors, Top Flight Technologies has simulators for many of these training and test applications.

Top Flight Technologies has made a huge expansion to UAV applications by introducing the Hybrid concept. The only downside is the inability to capture the energy back from braking.