We have all heard about camera drones for action sports – but there has never been anything similar made for skydiving. What if we could make a free-falling, parachuting, skydiving robot to do the same thing? As Mechanical Engineers and skydivers, we couldn’t think of a better way to combine our passions than by turning this idea into a project.
The Freefall Camera
History of the Project
It started, along with three of my friends and classmates at The University of Nottingham, as a group research project. During our third year of study, we designed and manufactured a prototype of what we called ‘The Freefall Camera’ – an autonomous skydiving robot capable of changing its position in the sky in order to keep a beacon in sight of its in-built camera, before being able to deploy its own parachute at a pre-determined altitude, and land safely.
We successfully flew our robot in an indoor skydiving wind tunnel, and tested a custom-built parachute from a plane, but never got clearance to test the full robot from ‘max altitude’ in the sky.
Working with Autodesk
Since then, we have gone our separate ways to different cities and new jobs, and work on The Freefall Camera slowed.
Enter Autodesk. With Fusion 360, and Autodesk’s Advanced Manufacturing Facility in Birmingham UK, we have been able to collaborate more effectively, and look at designs we previously couldn’t manufacture.
Our biggest problem with the previous design was its size. To fit everything in, we needed a large robot, which consequently meant we needed to increase its weight to counteract the extra drag it created, resulting in a final robot weighing around 7kg. The problem – weight is the enemy of safety. We needed a much lighter design to even be considered for passing Aviation Authority regulations. With 5-axis CNC machining in our toolbox, and integrated CAD/CAM software, the complexity of the parts we could machine increased, and made space saving possible. Our new design has a frontal area 9 times smaller than the original design, meaning it can weigh around 7 times less!
Online collaboration has been vital for us. The cloud storage of Fusion 360 meant that we could communicate ideas easily during the design process, not needing to export, send, and reimport every time we wanted to share the latest version. This has been key for us, being able to make design changes very quickly, even though we live in different cities.
During the design process, I would argue the most useful tool was the Design History Tree. With such a small design, so many individual components, and so much to squeeze in, I found myself constantly going back in the history tree to make design changes, which then automatically updated components later in the design history. If I made a mistake which impacted the rest of the model, I could easily find where the error was first created in the history tree, and then go back to fix the problem at its source. Without this, the amount of rework would have been vast.
With the design done, we are currently manufacturing the parts in Autodesk’s Birmingham facility and University of Nottingham’s Rapid Prototyping workshop. We are hoping to get testing in the wind tunnel again in the coming months.
Shout-outs and Thanks
The original team of four comprised of Tom Dryden (1st on the left), David Alatorre (3rd), Tom Shorten (4th) and myself (2nd). David originally came up with the skydiving robot idea, is studying for a PhD at the University of Nottingham, and continues to work on The Freefall Camera with me. Tom Shorten is now working full-time as a skydiving instructor, and Tom Dryden has gone on to work as a Design Engineer at Dyson.
Big thanks always go to those in the many departments at Autodesk who help with software and machining, and to technicians in Nottingham who continue to support us even after we’ve graduated.
If you’d like to stay updated on the project, take a look at our Facebook page.