Manchester researchers design and fly world’s largest quadcopter drone

Engineers at Manchester University have used foamboard to build and fly the world’s largest quadcopter drone, a platform with autonomous flight capabilities.

Manchester University

The drone, dubbed the Giant Foamboard Quadcopter (GFQ), measures 6.4m corner to corner and weighs 24.5kg, which is 0.5kg less than the weight limit set by the Civil Aviation Authority. The four arms are formed of a series of hollow box structures and can be easily removed for transportation.

The quadcopter was built from sheets of 5mm thick foamboard, which has a foam core and paper skin. The sheets were laser cut to size and assembled into the 3D structure by hand using hot melt glue.

Researchers aimed to utilise a low-cost and more environmentally friendly material suitable for lightweight aerospace structures. Unlike carbon fibre, low-density sheet materials can be highly recyclable, or even compostable.

In a statement, Dan Koning, a research engineer at Manchester University, who led the design and build of the vehicle, said: “Foamboard is an interesting material to work with, used in the right way we can create complex aerospace structures where every component is designed to be only as strong as it needs to be - there is no room for over-engineering here.”

GFQ is powered by four electric motors running off a 50V battery pack. It also has an on-board flight control system and can fly autonomously.

The first flight took place on July 5, 2023, at the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre during the CASCADE Collaboration Workshop Week, where teams from various UK universities come together to demonstrate their latest research technology.

This project builds on the previous success of an equally large fixed-wing foamboard aircraft in 2022. Following this, a student society was created at the university specifically to focus on developing lightweight, large scale foamboard Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs).

Bill Crowther, a professor of Aerospace Engineering at Manchester University, said: “Working with foamboard provides a unique learning opportunity for students to experiment with innovative structural designs.

“Although the material is strong for its weight, it requires significant engineering skill to exploit its structural potential. Ultimately, with this design you are holding up 25kg of aircraft with just a few strategically placed pieces of paper - that’s the art of the possible.”

The team said they are looking to optimise the design of the GFQ, with the aim of adding a few metres to their next UAV.