Reaching new heights: Engineering students assist researchers in flying world’s largest quadcopter drone
You’d be forgiven for wondering what on earth a ‘Giant Foamboard Quadcopter’ is. Better yet, you’d be forgiven for thinking it’s something out of a DC movie or Stan Lee comic strip. Superheroes and gadgets aside, picture this: it’s CASCADE Collaboration Workshop Week, and a group of 35 students and researchers from UK universities were gathered to exchange the latest in engineering technology and innovation. An unmanned aircraft vehicle (UAV) project six months in the making from The University of Manchester was finally prepped for lift off, and yet – not for lack of faith – our team of students and researchers couldn’t help but wonder… ‘what if it doesn’t get off the ground?’
The Aerospace Systems Laboratory team from the Faculty of Science and Engineering had meticulously constructed the craft over the course of a week at the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre. Made from a cardboard-like material, the structure measured an impressive 6.4m (21ft) in length, breaking the record for the largest purpose-built uncrewed quadcopter (four rotors) of any weight class. Acting as the highly anticipated sequel to its predecessor UAV, the pressure was on to produce a big hit. To the elation of the dedicated engineers, the Giant Foamboard Quadcopter successfully saw lift off, cementing its place in record-breaking history.
From project origins and confronting challenges, to seeking personal fulfilment and beating the odds, we spoke to the students who played a crucial part in this epic story.
Breaking old records: The challenge brief
The challenge required the drone’s load-bearing structure to consist solely of foamboard, while the entire craft couldn’t exceed the maximum weight limit of 25kg (according to Civil Aviation Authority regulatory restriction). Lastly – and crucially – the modular design needed to be able to break down for transportation purposes.
The project began as a curiosity-driven venture, aiming to inspire students’ creativity in environmentally friendly design. Low-density sheet materials can be highly recyclable, or even compostable, and foamboard is a low-cost material for lightweight aerospace structures that is more sustainable than the conventionally used carbon fibre.
Creativity and collaboration: The student team behind construction
Nicol Sutherland, a fourth-year Aerospace Engineering student, has been immersed and invested in this Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) project since its predecessor craft. Over the academic year, he has been working closely on the Giant Foamboard Aircraft (GFA) project, as well as contributing to the student society founded in its name. The Giant Foamboard Aircraft Society was created at the university specifically to focus on developing lightweight, large scale foamboard UAVs after the success of the Giant Foamboard Aircraft in 2022. Nicol even used the Giant Foamboard Aircraft as inspiration for his third-year dissertation.
“The thing that stuck with me most about the project was seeing what a group of researchers and students could achieve starting with a collection of simple materials,” Nicol observed. “The main challenge when constructing the drone was it being removed from a lab setting, meaning that if there were any mistakes that resulted in damage or incorrect assembly, there was no chance to manufacture any new parts,” he explained.
“We were tasked with completing construction in five days, meaning the onus was to be efficient as well as precise.”
Meanwhile, Yang Yang, now a graduate Aerospace Engineering student, is an enthusiast for structural and aircraft system design, and got involved in the GFQ team after a compelling presentation from a previous participant. The personal drive behind this challenge was the belief it would be engaging, rewarding, and ultimately, bring him joy, which Yang now says with certainty “in the end, it truly did.”
It was also enormously academically fulfilling for Yang, being able to understand and implement his studies in a real-world situation with high stakes. “The biggest challenge came in the last moments of the assembly stage, integrating minor subsystems such as structural joints and avionics,” Yang explains. “Scheduling when, where and how to assemble each part was also challenging.” This UAV project pushed the students beyond the limits of the labs, where calculated precision, practiced patience and organic problem solving rewarded their efforts with a new world record.
Dan Koning, a research engineer at The University of Manchester, was an undergraduate student involved with the first Giant Foamboard Aircraft project in 2022. In the wake of this pathfinder aircraft’s success, Dan couldn’t contain his curiosity of applying the lessons learnt to another type of UAV. This led him to conceptualising the designs of the GFQ and going on to lead the design and build of the project. Meanwhile, Kieran Wood, a Lecturer of Aerospace Systems at The University of Manchester, piloted the impressive vehicle. Dan expressed his pride of the teamwork and commitment shown from the students.
“The students who contributed to this project showed amazing enthusiasm and skilful problem solving,” Dan says, enthused. “During the build phase we were working long days with our hands and the tasks could get quite monotonous, but everyone took it in their stride.”
He continues, “The thing that impressed me most was how rapidly the skill and building techniques advanced. We had to make four identical arms for the vehicle and each successive structure went together quicker and more precisely than the last as the students adapted their manufacturing.”
Development Deep Dive: Designing the Giant Foamboard Quadcopter
The GFQ was designed over six months, which included development of a detailed computer mode to experiment with flying the drone in a virtual simulator. The craft can run autonomously and is powered by four electric motors running off a 50-volt battery pack, and also hosts an on-board flight control system.
The drone is constructed out of foamboard 5mm thick, a popular craft material with a foam core layered between two sheets of paper. The four arms are constructed of a series of hollow box structures which can be easily dismantled for transportation. Foamboard can be cut by hand or laser cutter and bonded using a hot glue gun to create these 3D structures.
Project Lead Dan Koning’s research is focussed on electric Vertical Take-Off & Landing (eVTOL) aircraft. The majority of his current work involves integrating various instrumentation and sensors with large UAVs, which can operate as vertical lifting multi-copters as well as fixed-wing planes. The purpose of this work is to directly measure in-flight performance metrics, to assess efficiency and controllability of these vehicles, which is not possible to do with standard commercial drones.
Dan reflects on the future of the GFQ’s lasting impact, “My greatest hope for the legacy of this project is that someone else takes a look at it and comes up with a better idea. Inspiring creativity in others was always the overarching goal.”
Learn more about Aerospace Engineering at the University of Manchester
Discover more about the Department for Mechanical, Aerospace and Civil Engineering at the University of Manchester