December 7, 2015 Harriet Jenkins

A $50,000 cash prize and expenses-paid trip to Las Vegas made it all worthwhile for the winners of the first Callaghan Innovation C-Prize.

The search to find New Zealand’s ‘next top UAV’ – an unmanned aerial vehicle that would meet the specific needs of the film industry – began earlier this year, and culminated with the announcement of the winning team at an awards evening on Monday night (1st December).

VorTech, a team of four former University of Auckland engineering students now working at tech companies, took out the grand prize. The prize includes the chance to showcase their invention at the 2015 National Association of Broadcasters trade show in Las Vegas next year, helping connect them with the US film and television industry.

C-Prize was launched in April with the dual aims of boosting New Zealand’s position as a world-leader in UAV (drone) technology and helping keep the country's innovative screen industry at the cutting-edge. At the same time, it was a chance to raise awareness of Callaghan Innovation’s role and services, and support the commercialisation of new technology.

The competition challenged teams to design and build a prototype UAV that could overcome one of three obstacles that limit their use in the film and TV industry: strong wind, rotor noise and the need to track moving objects.

Six finalists were selected from 80 entries in July and had less than four months to build and test their prototype.

VorTech’s winning creation was the impressive Gyroscope UAV, which uses an innovative propeller design that allows thrust in any direction, helping it hold position in gusty winds. 

Most modern UAV designs are limited by the fact they must pitch and roll in order to move laterally. Rotating a motor with a spinning prop also leads to precession effects, making it difficult for a UAV to maintain a position in high winds.

VorTech created a cutting edge propeller, inspired by academic research into the future of wind turbines. This propeller, when attached to a single electric motor and two servos, can provide a 360° thrust vector.

Four of these propellers provide 6-axis motion control without changing the attitude of the UAV, allowing excellent resistance to external forces.

The VorTech prop is also more aerodynamically efficient, improving flight times and maximum loads. Allied to a high performance sensor system, including a LIDAR altimeter and GPS with carrier wave detection (giving centimetre-level position accuracy), the VorTech propeller will allow class-leading position holding in high winds.

Minister for Science and Innovation, Hon. Steven Joyce acknowledged VorTech’s strong commercialisation plan as well as the advanced sensor systems used to understand the environment the UAV is operating in.

Callaghan Innovation, Aviation & Energy Sector Manager Chris Thomson, was there on the journey with the contestants from the very beginning.

“It was definitely the coolest thing I’ve been involved with at Callaghan Innovation so far. The highlight was testing crazy new flying things in the middle of the night, in a marquee, with a motion capture system and industrial-strength fan.”

Chris says he was really impressed with the make-it-happen attitude of all the finalists: “Four months to build and test prototypes, develop a commercialisation plan and deliver a business pitch is super-fast!”

“We achieved some great outcomes from the project. We’ve helped create three new start-up companies (with more to come), contestants started new PhD and Masters projects at the University of Auckland, and we’ve created new connections and collaborative R&D projects between our sponsors, entrants, and the film sector (including contracts with Disney and DreamWorks Studios).”

We also received widespread media coverage around the competition and the final awards night, helping to raise the profile of Callaghan Innovation and our work to support innovation in New Zealand.   


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