Every now and then in aerospace research the man in his workshop can actually come up with something that the technology behemoths of Boeing and EADS and Lockheed Martin cannot.
Whether it’s bureaucratic cultural prejudice against radical ideas and the ‘play it safe’ thinking that goes along with that, I don’t know.
But the almost-lone inventor can still provide something intriguing despite the vast difference in resources.
It was with this expectation that I found myself standing outside 225A Star Road in Peterborough (pronounced "Peter-bra"), a UK city 2h north of London by train, on a chilly day earlier this month.
Tucked away behind a bungalow (that’s single-storey house to those of you outside the UK), which is opposite a pub called The Volunteer, is the workshop of Geoff’s Flying Saucer (GFS) Projects.
With a couple of computers in a small makeshift office in one corner and work benches another Geoff Hatton, founder of GFS Projects, gave me the grand tour - from the sofa (or couch if you're American) to the canopy test rig, for testing convex and concave designs.
Hatton began working on his ideas in the 1990s. He contacted the local Business Link, a government funded organisation for helping small business, and was put in touch with the University of Cambridge. Its aeronautics experts’ confidence in the Coanda effect led to six private investors coming onboard.
Private funding has invested £230,000 and in September 2002 GFS Projects was awarded £43,000 ($74,200) by the UK government’s trade and industry department for a proof of principle study.
That work was completed in 2004 and in June 2005 the first free and controlled flight was achieved. Prior to that in March of 2005 Hatton filed patents covering the UAV’s design.
Hatton’s company is now seeking a further £400,000 in private capital.
The goal is create a more efficient design, with a longer endurance time and heavier payload capability. This could be achieved by matching an improved fan with an internal combustion engine powerplant.
As work progressed and the team flew the seventh prototype, GFS-7, in figures of eight indoors they also found that the UAV could fly through narrow ‘corridors’ – created with tables stacked alongside – and it could fly along walls; unlike other UAV technologies that become aerodynamically unstable when near a vertical surface.
Its propulsion is provided by a singular axial fan driven by an electric motor. Stators are used as counter rotation devices and the fan is shrouded with a nacelle unit that reduces its noise output.
The operational controls are similar to a conventional aircraft. A series of flaps around the base of the canopy control the pitch, roll, and yaw. The flaps affect the airflow over the canopy giving pitch and roll movement. Yaw is activated with a series of rudder like flaps within the airflow. With these the vehicle can yaw or spin.
Following local media coverage Hatton’s team, now including Cambridge university post-graduate students, was visited by six members of the US military’s research establishments for two days in January this year.
GFS Projects was also visited by Honeywell, after some nondisclosure agreement wrangling. Honeywell is currently testing, with the US Army Pacific command, its ducted-fan micro air vehicle demonstrator.
But during my visit the man in black (literally) was from the UK Ministry of Defence.
The MoD’s man, me, Hatton and Dr Holger Babinsky, a University of Cambridge aerodynamics expert, stood waiting while the prototypes were prepared for flight in an indoor flying area a short drive from Star road.
Previously I had been told that we could see an outdoor flight. But Hatton wanted no possibility of anything going wrong with the MoD present and sure enough he got his successful demonstrations.
The guy controlling the two prototypes was an expert radio control aircraft pilot who had flown large model Japanese fighter planes in Steven Spielberg’s movie Empire of the Sun.
Both vehicles seemed very stable and wasn’t windy outside at all. Babinsky was equally confident an outdoor flight would be fine but Hatton wants to wait until he incorporates anti-gust controls into the commercial Micropilot autopilot software he expects to use in the next phase of the prototypes development.
And we’ll be there to follow it. Demonstrating hardware is the tough bit. Lots of aerospace research goes on but it’s getting that hardware flying that really separates the achievers from the dreamers.