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Why Is NASA Testing Phantom 3 Drone?




NASA’s supercomputers are used to study next-generation aircraft aerodynamics. Now they can be key to improve current drone efficiency.

What? NASA testing Phantom? It certainly doesn’t look like DJI is going to put any human on Mars soon. If NASA testing Phantom,  the most popular quadcopter in the market this might mean they’re onto something…

These days it looks like the electronics inside flight controllers could make a coffee machine fly if it had four propellers in place. Is this efficient? The answer is a straight ‘NO’, but a great portion of all consumer drones available today have been designed and built based on that principle.

There is a range of poorly designed drones with even absurd shapes that fly ‘just because they can’. Here are some funny examples:

  • Snoopy’s House

  • The X-Wing Fighter From Star Wars

The X-Wing Fighter From Star Wars

Design Good, Perform Better

Among many other things, the Aeryon Skyranger was one of the firsts drones to integrate “pushing” props (under the arms) instead of “pulling” props (above the arms). In the second case, once the airflow is accelerated through the blade it hits the airframe reducing considerably the lift efficiency. In return, it was one of the first VTOL UAVs to achieve 50-minute flight times when the market average was 20 minutes.

aeryon skyranger uav


The Truth About Modern Aerodynamics

There is a branch of fluid mechanics called CFD (Computational Fluid Dynamics) that uses the power of computer processors to solve complex equations related to fluid flows. The importance of such discipline relies on the fact that the behavior of solid bodies inside a fluid is extremely difficult to predict (especially when this fluid is transparent). Modeling the same situation digitally can help in seeing where the design is inefficient and correct it before it is tested in the real world. Good examples of that are the evolution of the lines in the bodywork of F1 cars and the futuristic designs of new airliners.

X-43A (Hyper -X) Mach 7 computational fluid dynamic (CFD)


Why Is NASA Interested In Drones?

One of the reasons behind that might be that Romeo Durscher, Director of Education and the public face of DJI, is a former NASA employee.

NASA has been using CFD for quite long ago as an evolution of wind tunnel testing of new aircrafts. Recently, some researchers at NASA’s Ames Research Center in California’s Silicon Valley have used this method to study the aerodynamics of the famous DJI Phantom 3.

The following video shows the interactions of the air flows created by the four propellers with the quadcopter’s shape. This is how NASA testing Phantom drones:

As part of the experiment, the researchers doubled the number of propellers that the DJI Phantom 3 currently has to see how it would affect the performance. It turned out that even with the new configuration, it was able to deliver almost two times more thrust.

Those results will likely be used in the design of new and larger drones for heavy-lift and other unknown applications.

Thanks for reading!


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