Big Plane, Small Package

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It sounds like a riddle: How do you fit an entire airplane with a seven-foot wingspan inside a backpack? If I were to answer that question for myself, it would be something like, “Make sure you don’t miss any pieces after the crash.” However, the enterprising folks at WingXpand (prounounced like “wingspanned”) have an entirely different answer—one that involves still being able to fly the aircraft after you take it out of the backpack.

“This is the world’s only expandable-wing drone,” says James Barbien, the CEO and founder of WingXpand, the start-up that introduced the new platform at the 2022 AUVSI Xponential conference earlier this year in Orlando, Florida.

That’s right: Each of the drone’s wings expand like a nautical telescope, with four individual segments that nest inside one another for transportation and storage but then slide out and lock into place when it is time to fly.

“It’s a powerful, easy to use solution that fits in a backpack,” Barbien says. “You can also fit 10 of them in a trunk or 1,500 of them in a standard shipping container to go anywhere that they are needed in the world.”

Collapsible wings aside, the airframe itself would be entirely familiar to any modeler. The design of the wings themselves make it impossible to incorporate ailerons, but like an RC glider, maneuverability is achieved using a stabilator and a conventional rudder, both driven by servos. Also like an RC glider, the WingXpand platform employs a folding propeller, both to reduce its overall size and to protect it during landing, as the aircraft has no undercarriage.

The model on display at the show was 3D-printed for initial flight testing, but the finished product will be more robust.

“It’s going to be all aerospace-grade materials, like carbon fiber,” says Barbien. “It’s going to be very strong and very durable: No foam or lower-grade materials that can get banged up a lot easier.”

The company boasts that the aircraft can be out of the bag and ready to fly in less than two minutes. With a flight time over two hours with a one-pound payload, it has the endurance to survey a 1,000-acre plot of land, if deployed for photogrammetry or multispectral imaging of cropland, for example.

“When it comes to the payload, we have a modular, open-systems architecture,” Barbien explains. “You can basically install any conventional sensor into the payload bay.”

However, to my mind, a fixed-wing drone that can fit in a backpack wouldn’t be a game changer for your average land surveyor or farmer—they might find it convenient, to be sure, but they have the space and the time to set up a conventional system. On the other hand, if you’re a soldier, a wildland firefighter or someone else who needs an eye in the sky while you’re a long ways off from your support vehicle or base camp, the WingXpand system could literally be a lifesaver.

Of course, those applications require tools like visible light and thermal imaging cameras that can look around using a gimbal, rather than a sensor pointing straight down, as is used for mapping and survey work. A ventral-mounted turret is the obvious solution, but not on a belly-lander. Making your payload do double-duty as your undercarriage is not a recipe for success, at least in my experience.

Once again, Barbien had a ready answer: “We’ve designed it to accommodate a retractable gimbal for end users who need those types of payloads. Furthermore, with the sensor tucked inside the aircraft while it’s flying out to the target area, you get improved aerodynamic performance during that part of the mission.”

As a start-up, WingXpand had a booth in the innovation hub at the Xponential show—a space set aside for small companies with big dreams. The company’s plan is for a wave of pre-orders to fund the manufacture of its production platforms. TEXT & PHOTOS BY PATRICK SHERMAN

Updated: September 22, 2022 — 2:46 pm

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