Soldiers build drone from flat-pack to flight-ready

Reading Time: 4 minutes

On 27 November 2019, several Australian Army soldiers gathered in Melbourne the day after a Defence Innovation Hub Phase , Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) took flight. This demonstration of a disposable, low-cost resupply mission simulated a 3kg combat resupply on a pre-planned flight path. SYPAQ, an Australian company based in Melbourne, had already shown how it could fly this UAS, a year after pitching it at the Army Innovation Day 2018. I was humbled to join some soldiers to assemble one of these ‘Corvo PPDS’ drones – ‘Corvo’ is Italian for crow, a nod to both SYPAQ’s founding family’s Italian heritage and to one of the smartest scavenger birds. PPDS stands for the “Precision Payload Delivery System” – pretty.

The drones come in a flat-pack kit, each slightly longer than a takeaway pizza box – the pallet shown below holds 24 of these kits including their assembly materials, tools, motors and batteries. Led by the pragmatically-conscious designers at SYPAQ, we followed their demonstration as well as the user guides to make the drone that Army and Defence Innovation Hub envision will be a 3kg-payload carrying drone which has a secondary mission profile to be an airborne, loitering re-transmitter. 

Dr Chatura Nagahawatte, from the Unmanned Aircraft Systems team at Defence Science and Technology Group, holds a single Corvo PPDS flat-pack for comparison – the pallet behind holds 24 drones to assemble, complete with their motors, batteries and tools.

Lance Corporal Will Coyer, a distribution soldier at 7th Combat Service Support Battalion said, “Corvo PPDS was easy to put together – certain parts required attention to detail, but the precision manufacturing of the flat-pack kit made it simple.” One of the objectives of seeing soldiers assemble the UAS was to identify the ease with which any soldier can put this drone together with only simple tools: a glue gun, knife, pen and tape. A spanner is only required for the final assembly of a propeller, and most of the magic in this UAS lies in the software which includes an autopilot, in-flight planning to waypoints and loiter areas, and managing only two control surfaces: the Corvo PPDS has an elevon on each side, and no rudder.

That flight magic is physically held in a piece of computing that is barely larger than a piece of toast, and it’s easily plugged into the motor and elevon controls. SYPAQ spent most of its development in the software itself, noting that the hardware (model airplanes) aren’t particularly new, and sought to keep costs down whilst offering more sophistication. In fact, the software, including a simulation interface, is so good that any soldier is able to launch a sortie within minutes of developing a plan on the standard Android tablet, using their fingers to drop waypoint and loiter orbits, and designate a landing point. The software even estimates the flight time, total distance to fly, and ensures the mission can be flown within connectivity once launched – a key feature for the GPS-denied battlespace.

Corporal Conroy from 20th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, plots waypoints for a simulated Corvo PPDS drone mission.

The build day showed how far SYPAQ had come since they received their third contract from Defence Innovation Hub. Corvo’s team leader at SYPAQ, Ross Osborne, reflected on the build day:

“Today was a brilliant opportunity for SYPAQ to collaborate with Army; to see soldiers constructing the PPDS was a fantastic milestone in our 9 month development program. The Defence Innovation Hub has enabled us to gain feedback from a wide variety of stakeholders and this directly contributes to the success of the project.”

Grant Cameron, representing Defence Innovation Hub, replied in the same mutual sense of success through collaboration: 

“The Defence Innovation Hub is all about collaborating with Industry and the end users; today was a great opportunity to see this in action. This has been a great success.”

Army’s end users were represented by 20th Regiment, Royal Australian Artillery, 7th Combat Service Support Battalion and 17th Sustainment Brigade, representing soldiers from integral, close and force resupply units. In reality, the pallet shown above with 24 Corvo PPDS drones, flat packed, will equate to a platoon’s resupply of combat rations, water, batteries, or ammunition. SYPAQ designed the Corvo PPDS with blood products in mind as well, so the aircraft is able to launch, fly up to 30km and land by itself. A collapsible catapult is all that’s required to launch the drone after it completes arming checks, and a mission can be retasked in flight if required.

My personal assessment is that this capability can expand in the near future to include disposable jamming for Electronic Warfare, Humanitarian Assistance or Disaster Relief missions – Government might choose to support a disaster-affected area with a small team of soldiers, a few pallets of flat-pack drones and medical supplies or water to send. Coastal patrols and lifeguards might be able to send a Corvo PPDS with a life jacket to a person bobbing in the water, and battlefield commanders will be able to dump stores ahead of advancing troops, or break a siege with food and water resupply. This UAS, of course, is only an example of this capability which can be scaled upwards, and its software is the most important component which will no doubt grow into other applications.

The next stage of Corvo PPDS’s development will refine requirements, such as the maintenance procedures, supply chains and training requirements. You can follow all things Army UAS via Army’s UAS Program Manager, Lieutenant Colonel Keirin Joyce (@keirinjoyce), who has overseen Army’s involvement with the Corvo since Army Innovation Day.