Plan Jericho was launched by the Royal Australian Air Force in 2015 as a means to transform the Air Force for the information age. Its purpose is to give our Air Force the edge to protect Australia from technologically sophisticated and rapidly changing threats. A key feature of the Plan is development funding for SMEs with innovative ideas and inventions that can improve “agility in supply systems”. One such idea was conceived by Simbiant, an Adelaide based high tech company specialising in defence technology. The invention is a large plane-like, fully autonomous vehicle – or ‘air mule’ drone – made from carbon fibre, primarily designed for rapid testing of electronic warfare (EW) systems as well as lifting and delivering supplies such as much needed water, first aid kits, telecommunications equipment and weapons.
Eric Freund, Engineering Manager with Simbiant says: “We know that drone technology creates a safer and more efficient operational environment for professionals on the ground. Our vision was to further capitalise on unimagined possibilities of the ‘air mule’ drone.”
The Simbiant B600 UAV is a carbon fibre composite, multi-mission, heavy lift vehicle with a wing span of 6.5 metres and an empty weight of 70 kilograms (kg).
The B600 is designed to take off swiftly to support the Royal Australian Air Force. It can travel for 500km at speeds of up to 125kp/h, with a cruising altitude of 1.5km, and is designed for quick and easy load changes. The removable payload box located on the underside of the fuselage measures 100x65x45cm and is able to carry up to 50kg. The drone can carry different types of payload boxes, from standard enclosed boxes to boxes that can open mid-flight to release their contents.
To build the B600 UAV, Simbiant chose Toowoomba based BAC Technologies as its production partner. BAC’s pedigree as a recognised supplier for the Australian Department of Defence, as well as its ISO 9001 accreditation, were key factors in the decision. Tim Wheeler, BAC’s Managing Director says: “The project started with a weight requirement of less than 150kg take-off weight for a vehicle that is required to carry up to a minimum of 50kg. We built what is essentially a small aeroplane from scratch, including making the moulds, all of which presented technical issues to be overcome, particularly given the fine tolerances.”
Carbon fibre was the material of choice, given its strength to weight and stiffness-to weight ratios, the latter being the deciding factor given a wing span of 6.5 metres. “We also had to find an engineered solution to suppress drumming and the noise from harmonics motion,” said Eric Freund. “The large flat fuselage is designed for transport, but its flatness also presented a construction challenge. The required rigidity was achieved with a series of strategically placed ribs within the fuselage made with 3mm carbon fibre foam core.”
There is no doubt that military drones are revolutionising operations in conflict zones. They are increasingly used to perform hazardous work that was once performed by military personnel, including monitoring and aerial mapping; gathering battlefield intelligence; undertaking surveillance; monitoring telecommunications infrastructure and delivering humanitarian aid, medical equipment and supplies.
Tim Wheeler says “With drone technologies consistently improving, our effective use of them will only increase. They are a worthy application for composites technologies that can achieve the required payloads, strength and weight for airborne electronic machinery. We at BAC are delighted to be part of developing products that are a service to our defence forces by reducing the risk to our military personnel.”
This article first appeared in: Connection Magazine Issue 50: July, 2019
Author: Kerryn Caulfield