Local Motors relies on drone community for unique UAS designs

By Patrick C. Miller | November 09, 2016

True outside-the-box drone design and the need for coordination between manned military aircraft and UAS operators were among the many topics covered during the second day of the Arizona UAS Summit & Expo near Scottsdale.

Alex Palmer, a design engineer with Local Motors located in Chandler, Arizona, outlined the company’s unique approach to co-creating and community problem-solving to design a variety of vehicles, including UAS. Customers range from Domino’s Pizza to DARPA.

“I’m lucky to be an engineer at local motors because we have 20 percent fun time, which is when you design something cool,” he said.

Palmer explained how the company worked with the Airbus Group—an aviation manufacturer based in Germany—to design the unique cargo drone. But when Airbus revealed its design parameters, they were for a drone similar to what the company already produced.

According to Palmer, the company’s approach was, “This is the way we do things because this is the way we’ve done things.”

It took some convincing to get Airbus to expand the requirements and loosen up the restraints. After a design challenge was issued, Local Motors received 425 entries in six weeks. After vetting the designs, it was determined that about 40 would actually work.  

“We showed Airbus the top 10 designs which started hours of debate among the executives,” Palmer recalled. “They loved all of them. It was absolutely amazing.”

The winning designer received $50,000, a trip to the Farnborough Airshow in England and Cargo Drone Flight Jacket with personalized patch.

Palmer said the concept works because it draws upon a 60,000-member community for ideas and input.  As he explained, “Many of them are smarter than us and many smart people don’t work for big companies.”

But when big companies are pulled out of their comfort zones and tap into the potential of the design community, the results are usually astounding.

“Something that would take them years to do, we are doing in fractions of that time,” Palmer said.

Col. Hoyt Slocum, vice wing commander of the 161st Air Refueling Wing with the Arizona National Guard, discussed the need for better communication and coordination between UAS operators and the areas in which manned military aircraft fly training missions in the state.

Those who pass the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) test under Part 107 and receive a done license need to make sure they understand special military airspace and look up the NOTAMs that detail the use of that space.

“Virtually everyone’s going to be a pilot, but we’re all maneuvering in the same space,” Slocum said. “The FAA has not quite kept up with current events. Their charts don’t show the true width of the flight corridors—they are much wider.”

He also stressed that while many military training flights are often above 400 feet where small UAS operate, that’s not always the case. Therefore, it’s important to know the altitude range for flights in special use areas.

“We don’t see birds until we’re right on top of them,” Slocum noted. “It would be the same with UAS. The difference is that birds don’t explode on impact. Lithium batteries tend to do that.”

The UAS Summit & Expo concludes Wednesday at the We-Ko-Pa Resort and Convention Center. 


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