Flight Time

Beating the air like a swarm of bees, drones at Oregon State University lift off on research missions: farm field surveillance, power line inspections, whale monitoring and mock search and rescue operations. These remotely piloted flying machines are saving lives, boosting food production and showing us unprecedented views of the natural world. However, the technology faces a major limitation: Battery powered motors usually run out of juice in about 20 minutes.

Now a team led by Chris Hagen, professor of energy systems engineering at OSU-Cascades, is developing a hybrid powertrain (gas engine and electric motor) that has already tripled the time that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can spend in the air. Through the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator, Hagen and his collaborators — students, alumni and business partners — are evaluating the market and developing an entrepreneurial approach to one of the fastest growing industries in the United States.

Former graduate researcher Sean Brown, now at SpaceX, conducted drone test flights near OSU-Cascades in Bend.

“The UAV industry is growing by leaps and bounds,” Hagen told Forefront, the newsletter of the School of Mechanical, Industrial and Manufacturing Engineering. “Having a powertrain that extends the range of these vehicles is a great enabler for adoption.”

The team’s hybrid motor uses the gasoline engine to charge the batteries. While that might sound simple, researchers have to balance every ounce of additional payload with the demanding performance of lightweight aircraft.

Hagen’s lab includes a device known as a Small Engine Dynamometer, a powertrain testbed for gathering data on engine performance, fuel use and other factors.

Oregon State researchers conducted more than 300 drone operations in 2017. OSU participates in a UAV collaboration known as ASSURE, the Alliance for System Safety of UAS through Research Excellence. Among the participants in ASSURE are 23 of the world’s leading research institutions and 100 industry and government partners.

With support from the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust and OSU’s University Venture Development Fund, Hagen and his students – Sean Brown (now with SpaceX) and James Benbrook — are partnering with KDE Direct as well as with consulting engineers Tom Herron and Matt Smith, both OSU alumni. Working through the Oregon State University Advantage Accelerator, the team is applying for a slot in a national technology commercialization program known as iCorps, funded by the National Science Foundation.