Indian’s UAV to survey Arctic ice algae

Making unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) was a passion for Vinoth Gurusamy even while he was a student. The 26-year-old, who hails from Tiruchi, Tamil Nadu, has now turned his passion into an enterprise at the University of Sheffield, UK.

The passion first found expression in 2008 during his under-graduation in aeronautical engineering at the Chennai-based Rajalakshmi Engineering College. He, along with a group of students from his college, took part in a competition held by DRDO in Bangalore. They were one of the 10 teams selected from many participants.

This was the Phase I part of the competition that involved designing a UAV. Phase II involved manufacturing a vehicle. “We made the plane, but due to some technical problems, it did not fly,” recalled Mr. Gurusamy. “I gained a lot. This was a stepping stone.”

But he turned the failure into success the very next year while doing his post-graduation in aerodynamics and aerostructures in the Mechanical Engineering Department at the University of Sheffield. He, along with a few other students, took part in the International Micro Air Vehicle (IMAV 2010) competition held in Germany.

“We made a bigger plane but the concept was pretty much the same,” he said. “We were placed second [in one of the competitions]. This whole thing was a process. Here in Rajalakshmi [Engneering College] we were not successful but we succeeded in Sheffield. This first step [at Rajalakshmi] was very essential.”

He has now gone beyond winning competitions. The Geography Department at Sheffield wants to do a survey of vegetation on Arctic ice using his UAV. “That is one of the reasons for starting my own company,” Mr. Gurusamy said. He is in the process of securing funding and the plane is expected to be ready by the end of 2014.

Starting a company may not have been possible but for the generous support extended by the University of Sheffield. “They were the primary reason for me to start the company. They gave me advice and also office space [with all amenities] free of rent,” he stressed. “A similar office outside would cost me 2,000 pounds per month.”

The Geography Department is also looking at the possibility of using his UAV for monitoring carbon-dioxide levels at every 200 feet from the ground to 600 metres above the ground. “They are looking into the possibility of using it. It is still not confirmed,” he noted. “These planes can be used for anything — surveying oceans or forests or even public surveillance.”

It would be composed mainly of carbon fibre and would be 2.6 metres long with a wingspan of 3.1 metres. Weighing about 20 kg, the plane can stay on air for as long as 18 hours and can be remotely operated from a base station that is as far as 150 km away. The flight path is preprogrammed but can be changed in flight based on commands from the base station.

The auto pilot is the heart of the UAV as this controls everything. But the most challenging part is the propulsion. He has used a 35 cc petrol engine and modified it to reduce fuel consumption. “Reducing fuel consumption but yet meeting the power requirements, this is the crucial part. If you don’t get that right, it would fly only for a few hours,” he explained.

The size of the engine remains the same but other things of the engine are modified to reduce fuel consumption. “It would fly probably 8-9 hours if no modifications to the engine are done,” Mr. Gurusamy said. Squeezing the most out of the fuel is essential as it weighs 7-8 kg. “It is the single component that adds the most weight,” he noted.

As a result, the plane can carry a payload of 5-6 kg. But there is a way of carrying more payloads if the amount of fuel is reduced. “Fuel can be reduced to four and a half kilograms. But the maximum payload cannot exceed 8 kg,” he underlined. “[This is because] the fuel is distributed throughout the UAV. So there is equal distribution of weight.”

“I am hoping to [tap] the civilian market so many people can use it to collect data… like security monitoring. We need to just change the payload and use it for different missions,” he said. “Big companies can provide UAVs but those are going to be very expensive. That’s where I come in. I can provide a cheaper solution,” he said.

Magic glove

Aside from UVAs, he has commercialised a glove that would help dumb people or those with speech disability caused by paralysis to speak up to 1,000 words by moving the fingers. The words are preprogrammed into the gloves.

The technology is based on 3D gesture recognition. It reads the finger movements and changes them into commands. These commands can produce words or sentences that are preprogrammed. It costs 700 pounds. “It is a charity project. We are not getting anything from it,” he said.

Published in The Hindu on July 25, 2013