Tucked away on the outskirts of Victoria Airport, among some small industrial buildings and behind a restaurant, sits a nondescript hangar, with sharp minds working on some of the world’s most cutting-edge drone technology.
Just don’t call them drones. To the scientists and engineers of UVic’s Centre For Aerospace Research (CFAR), they are known as Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).
Jay Matlock, a masters student in mechanical engineering and a project manager at the centre, explains.
“The majority of aircraft here are fixed wing in the conventional shape. Some of the aircraft have electric ducted fans on them, some have jet engines, and we have quad-copters and hex-copters as well. ‘Drones’ covers a spectrum of craft.”
Afzal Suleman is the director of aerospace research at CFAR and a professor at UVic. He says that half of the centre is set up to conduct research and development, and half is to collaborate with non-academic organizations, including notable big players like Boeing, Bombardier and the Department of National Defence.
“We work with Europe a lot, Japan, the U.S. and we have university partners [across Europe]. The split between private projects and academic research is 50:50,” he says.
Perhaps surprisingly, UVic doesn’t yet have an aerospace program and the students and staff who work there typically have backgrounds in mechanical, electrical and software engineering.
“UAVs are being used for a lot of cool projects. I heard that in Rwanda they are being used as a blood delivery system, and in Australia, they are delivering cups of coffee that people order using their phones,” Matlock says.
There are some confidential projects the engineers are unable to talk about, but they were keen to share some of their other new innovations. Matlock and Ben Gawley, a full-time engineer at CFAR, said that powerful cameras and sensor systems are added to the UAVs for use in communications, surveying and mapping. And two of their latest projects involve using electric/petrol hybrid propulsion systems and artificial intelligence (AI).
“For the past two years, we have had students pushing the envelope on the use of AI,” Suleman says. “One of the main issues we have to resolve is ‘sense and avoid,’ making these systems able to sense obstacles, other aircraft or dynamic systems and adjust automatically.”
Matlock gives an example of a masters student’s research. “We have developed some very special sets of wings – the latest ones had fibre-optic cables in them with very small laser-etched gradings, so you can look at the spectrum of the light going though the cables, to get an idea of how the wing is bending and twisting in flight.”
CFAR is proud of its staff and location. It is grateful to its many local partners, who produce parts or offer 3-D printing assistance very quickly – such as Harwood Custom Composites, Stark CNC, Western Edison, Foreman CNC, Rainhouse, Camosun College and UVic.
“There’s a lot of really exciting stuff happening here in [Greater] Victoria. To be able to live in Victoria and work on some of these projects is really cool,” Gawley says.