Improving Fixed Wing UAV Endurance, by Cooperative Autonomous Soaring
Abstract: The ever-expanding use and development of smaller UAVs (Unmanned Aerial Vehicles) has highlighted an increasing demand for extended range and endurance for this type of vehicles. In this thesis, the development of a concept and system for autonomous soaring of cooperating unmanned aerial vehicles is presented. The purpose of the developed system is to extend endurance by harvesting energy available in the atmosphere in the form of thermal updrafts, in a similar way that some birds and manned gliders do. By using this “free” energy, considerable improvements in maximum achievable endurance can be realized under a wide variety of atmospherical and weather conditions. The work included theoretical analysis, simulations, and finally flight test- ing of the soaring controller and the system. The system was initially devel- oped as a single-vehicle concept and thereafter extended into a system consist- ing of two cooperating gliders. The purpose of the extension to cooperation, was to further improve the performance of the system by increasing the ability to locate the rising air of thermal updrafts. The theoretical analysis proved the soaring algorithm’s thermal centering controller to be stable. The trials showed the concept of autonomous soaring to function as expected from the simulations. Further it revealed that, by applying the idea, extensive performance gains can be achieved under a fairly wide variety of conditions. The cooperative soaring, likewise, functioned as anticipated and the glid- ers found, cooperated, and climbed together in updrafts. This represents the first and presumably only time cooperative autonomous soaring in this way, has been successfully demonstrated in flight. To draw further conclusions on the advantages of cooperative soaring additional flight trials would, however, be beneficial. Possible issues and limitations were highlighted during the trials and a number of potential improvements were identified. As a part of the work, trials were conducted to verify the viability to implement the system into “real world” operational scenarios. As a proof of concept this was done by tasking the autonomous gliders to perform data/communications relay missions for other UAV systems sending imagery to the ground-station from beyond line of sight (BLOS). The outcome of the trials was positive and the concept appeared to be well suited for these types of missions. The comms relay system was further developed into a hybrid system where the optimal location concerning relay performance was autonomously sought out, after-which the attentiveness then switched to autonomous thermal soaring in the vicinity of this ideal relay position. The hybrid system was tested in simulation and partially flight tested.
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