Controlling the power needed to de-ice drones

In its effort to bring the first drone de-icing system to market, Trondheim-based startup UBIQ Aerospace reached out to Data Respons R&D Services for hardware expertise to control the energy needed for setting drone wings on “defrost”: A challenging assignment with a tight deadline. 

Animated drone

Just like passenger jets and other manned aircraft, drones run into trouble when ice builds up on wings and propellers. Manned or unmanned, they need to be aware of what frozen water can do: Ice accumulated during flight increases an aircraft’s weight, reduces lift and maneuverability, and can ultimately cause it to stall and crash.

When it comes to fixed-wing drones, power will do the trick. Similar to the basic concept of an oven, you can send an electric current through a resistive material – in this case ultra-thin sheets – to heat up the wings and fix the problem, according to Kasper Borup and Kim Sørensen, founders of the Trondheim based startup UBIQ Aerospace.

From research to business

Building on their PhD studies and research at the Center for Autonomous Marine Operations at the Norwegian University of Science and Technology, the UBIQ team is now turning their research into a commercial product. Named D•ICE it is the world’s first autonomous drone de-icing system. It is designed for medium sized fixed-wing drones with a wingspan of 3 to 5 metres but will also be applicable to large unmanned aircraft, the most valuable of which can cost up to 500 million Dollars.

D•ICE is a completely autonomous system, requiring no outside operator to manage. To detect icing hazards, a sensor package monitors atmospheric conditions. The data is analysed by a set of algorithms, which also monitor the behaviour of the drone, to detect any changes due to icing. A control unit then channels the appropriate amount of power from the aircraft’s battery to the thermoelectric panels mounted on the wings and tail of the drone.

Harsh environment

As Kim Sørensen and Kasper Borup point out, when developing such a complex product there is a long way from prototype to finished product ready for volume production. Not least when the technologies involved come straight out of the research laboratory, and the system is required to function in a harsh environment with strict requirements regarding stability and safety.

– We’ve worked on this for 7 years, starting out in research and then beginning to commercialize the technology in 2017. Primarily our competences lie in software and development of autonomous systems. We are a small team, and we can’t do everything ourselves, so when we needed to improve some of the hardware we decided to look for a partner. We did a thorough survey to find the right company to collaborate with, and Data Respons just stood out. They were extremely responsive and dedicated, and after meeting with them we just felt relieved. We had found the right people for the job, and we’re going to work a lot more with them in the future.

Hardware expertise

UBIQ wanted to tap into Data Respons’ broad experience in preparing prototypes for large-scale production as well as designing hardware for harsh environments, such as aviation, subsea and military applications. On top of that, they had a tight deadline, with only a few months to get a new version of the de-icing system ready for a number of important – and expensive – wind tunnel and flight tests.

– We asked them to design a new version of the control unit that processes the sensor data and controls the flow of energy from the drone’s battery to the thermoelectric panels. They managed to significantly improve the controller. Now it is much smaller than the previous one, less error prone, more sleek and functional, and designed to meet the industry standard in this domain.

– Just to mention one thing, now we’ve got much better control of the powerful current that goes to the panels. That may not sound super sexy, but when you’re sending high current through a small aircraft that can cost millions you need to be able to control it precisely, to avoid the risk of melting panels or a burning battery.

Photo of Lyder and Ole
The control unit for the UBIQ de-icing system has been designed by Lyder (left side) and Ole (right side), drawing on Data Respons’ vast experience in developing hardware solutions for challenging environments such as subsea and defence. Furthermore, on top of being a highly experienced hardware engineer Ole is also a drone enthusiast. He designs his own drones and is very well informed in regards to hardware and software controlling drones, battery usage, motors etc. Among other things he uses on-board cameras and VR goggles to view the world from the drone’s perspective.

Tight deadline

Furthermore, the Data Respons team was able to meet the tight deadline of the project. Starting in the beginning of June it had to be completed early September. The team was able to speed up the project by collaborating with a Data Respons sub-supplier in Shanghai that has worked with the company for more than 10 years.

– We are impressed by what the team has done. For us it is really comforting to have people with that level of expertise contribute to the project. Now there is one thing less for us to worry about, and that allows us to concentrate on what we are good at: developing autonomous systems.

– And we haven’t finished partnering with Data Respons. We are very satisfied with the collaboration and with the support we got. They have experience in developing robust hardware solutions that meet the tough requirements in our domain, and they know how to bring prototypes up to industry standard and preparing them for batch production. We’ll definitely make use of that expertise moving forward.