Pitch Aeronautics Astria: Cyclorotor drone for up-close and touch-based robotic tasks

Pitch Aeronautics Astria Cyclorotor Drone
Pitch Aero's Astria can put a 5-10lb payload near or in contact with an elevated target. Images © Pitch Aeronautics

Pitch Aeronautics has developed and built a prototype drone, “Astria” which is currently undergoing flight testing. Astria is a new type of drone that can perform up-close, touch, and robotic tasks (not just video or remote sensing). The company has also developed initial sensor payload prototypes for use on the drone platform and leverages a patented cyclorotor for precision positioning, and a patent-pending configuration to mount a 5-10lb payload on an interchangeable payload arm.

Keep people off ropes, ladders, cranes, and scaffolding

Inspection climbing is the most dangerous job in the United States. On bridges, inspectors climb ropes and use crack-cards to manually estimate the width of cracks. On high-voltage power lines, technicians use helicopters to install small colored bird diverters. Today inspectors rappel down the blades of a wind turbine and tap the blade to listen for subsurface delamination. Astria, the up-close and touch-capable platform, can supplant such tasks, and keep inspectors safely on the ground.

Astria moves differently

Most drones need to tilt to move and correct against gusts of wind. Pitch Aero’s Astria, however, can keep itself steady in flight, thanks to a novel use of cyclorotors that opens up a range of use cases other drones can’t handle.

The cyclorotor can push Astria forward, backwards, or sideways – Astria does not need to lean. It can vary this near-instantaneously to account for wind variations.

Cyclorotors, also known as Voith-Schneider propellers, push air similar to how a paddle steamer pushes water. Each is a spinning barrel, with blades along the sides capable of varying their pitch extremely quickly to vector thrust almost immediately in 360 degrees. This near-instant thrust vectoring capability offers some advantages that standard propellers, tilt-rotors and other solutions can’t.

Swappable payloads

Astria’s 5-10lb payload is positioned at the end of a sensor arm. This keeps the sensor or tool away from the rotors and allows it to interact with the inspection or maintenance target. This arm can be quickly swapped to provide the right tool or sensor for the job at hand.

Payloads in development

  • Active Thermography Sensor: This sensor detects subsurface delamination and defects in concrete, fiberglass, and more. It fits on the end of Astria’s payload arm. After being flown close to a target, lamps heat up the surface, then a high-resolution thermal sensor takes a series of infrared images. Heat flows through defects differently than the rest of the material – defects can be identified with software post-processing of the images.

    Active Thermography Sensor
    Active Thermography Sensor
  • Crack Width Measurer: When positioned close to a wall, the crack width measurement sensor can identify and measure all of the cracks in the field of view. It beats rappelling down and using a crack card by a mile.

    Crack Width Measurement Sensor
    Crack Width Measurement Sensor

Future payloads and tasks

  • Bird Diverter Installation: To reduce avian interaction with power lines, small devices called “bird diverters” are installed. Today that requires the use of a helicopter or specialized boom trucks, which is expensive and dangerous. Astria could help the linemen do this remotely.
  • Hole Repair: There are 180 million utility poles in the United States, which the 23 native woodpecker species occasionally make their target or home. Today these holes must be repaired by linemen using specialized utility cranes. Future payloads for Astria could repair these holes while keeping technicians on the ground.
  • Wind Turbine Lightning Protection System Testing: 80% of wind turbine downtime insurance claims are from lightning damage. Today inspectors must rappel wind turbine blades to touch a probe to the exposed metal of a lightning protection system. This ensures there aren’t any shorts, so that the next time lightning strikes, it won’t destroy the blade. In the future, Astria could perform this inspection.
  • Cotter Key Replacement: Power lines are secured to insulators in part with tiny pins called “cotter keys.” Cotter keys can become dislodged and then need to be replaced. Today this requires lineman using bucket-trucks and hot-sticks to work on live electrical lines. This little pin is responsible for many severe injuries and deaths.

Other useful features

Astria, named for the Greek goddess of precision, is a relatively large drone, but completely collapsible for transport. Every component collapses down to fit inside hard cases to check on a flight or put in the back of a vehicle. Astria can be assembled or disassembled in minutes without any special tools.

Pitch Aero Astria Collapsible
Astria is completely collapsible for transport

Time of flight sensors mounted in every direction, paired with optical flow cameras allow Astria to see the world around it. These sensors provide obstacle avoidance and allow Astria to hold positioning even if GPS satellites are obstructed or jammed.

An onboard camera, paired with first person view goggles allows you to fly Astria as if you were in the cockpit. This allows the pilot to precisely position a sensor or tool up-close or in contact with an inspection target; even on part of an inspection target that isn’t visible from the ground. The goggles overlay key flight and inspection information over the video for rapid decision-making.

Astria’s battery can provide 20 minutes of flight time with a full payload. It can be swapped out in seconds enabling all-day operations. In the future, Pitch Aeronauitics plans to provide a tethered solution for even longer endurance applications.

Invest in Pitch Aeronautics

Pitch Aeronautics was founded by Air Force veterans with experience in unmanned aerial systems, professional flying, organizational leadership, flight testing, cyber security, and advanced technology development. Individuals can now own a piece of Pitch Aeronautics by investing via Pitch’s StartEngine campaign.

Source: Pitch Aeronautics

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