How Multidisciplinary Cloud Platforms Energize the Design of Solar-Powered Autonomous Drones

Solar technology has the potential to make autonomous aerial drones even more independent. With enough solar panels and batteries, these systems could theoretically fly all day and long after sunset. Unfortunately, power systems are not light, and the more the drone weighs the more power is needed to fly. In addition, many regions are starting to enact strict limits on the weight of aerial drones.

This means that when companies such as XSun design drones like SolarXOne, they must perform multiphysics simulations to determine an optimal design based on weight, aerodynamics, structure, carrying capacity and much more.

Benjamin David, CEO and co-founder of XSun, said, “The idea of the drone is to be able to fly as long as possible and everywhere as simply as possible. The SolarXOne drone is a bundle of technologies—different sciences, different disciplines—that are not necessarily expected to work together. We had to find solutions to make it a harmonious product.”

To develop this drone, XSun opted to work with the 3DEXPEREIENCE Lab, which offered access to cloud-based development tools on the 3DEXPEREIENCE platform.

A rendering of the SolarXOne created by XSun. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes).

The Design of the SolarXOne Autonomous Drone

David explained that the inspiration for SolarXOne was the concept of satellites at lower altitudes. In order to meet regulations for various countries, the drone needed to weigh less than 25 kg (55 lbs). If the design overshot this weight, the team wouldn’t be able to market the drone to all of their target markets.

The SolarXOne and its launching mechanism. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

The intended target audiences for the drone include:

  • Scientific research, such as weather, ocean or geological monitoring.
  • Business research, such as road monitoring, natural resource tracking or precision agriculture.
  • Defense and security, such as search and rescue, telecommunication relays and surveillance.

“The ultimate goal would be to make [SolarXOne] available to various civil, scientific and military organizations as new autonomous data acquisition machines,” David explained.

As a result, the design team had to ensure that SolarXOne can operate for long periods of time, so that it could handle various types of treacherous, vast and/or remote terrain. XSun states that the current design is capable of a minimum of 12 hours of flight autonomy—with the ability to increase this time to 20 hours.

To achieve this, the drone needed to be light and to maintain an impressive wingspan. Not only does the wingspan help sustain lift, it also offers a large surface area for the solar panels. To accommodate this, XSun constructed the drone out of composite materials with a 4.5 m (14.7 ft) wingspan.

“The SolarXOne drone will enable much simpler, much cheaper and more autonomous data acquisition for different applications such as mapping, topography, agriculture and surveillance for different sectors,” said David.

XSun CEO and co-founder, Benjamin David, introduces SolarXone and the role that 3DXPERIENCE had in its design.

Design Engineering and the Effects of Working in a Single Cloud Platform

XSun’s development process lived completely on the cloud. This enabled them to work from anywhere with an internet connection—be it a hotel, home, company or temporary office.

An engineer works on SolarXOne within the 3DXPERIENCE platform. (Image courtesy of Dassault Systèmes.)

Denis Pitance, test engineer at XSun said, “Getting everyone’s updates in real-time enables us to save time with the integration of the elements. The Cloud was immediately obvious.”

David added, “It enables us to create things in a harmonized way. It also enables us to centralize all the information, all the data on a single platform and thus keep a unique clean and clear configuration.”

Employees could access the platform simultaneously, whenever they needed it. This enabled them to follow each other’s work and collaborate productively.

Andrea Viti, an aerodynamics engineer at XSun, said “The real challenge is to be able to work all together. More and more people are turning towards multidisciplinary design and the platform enables that. It’s really a question of acceleration; it enables us to do everything faster.”

Decisions made by one of the teams could have big ramifications for other teams. By having a single source of truth that updates automatically, it is easy to see how any changes affect the drone’s aerodynamic field.

In other words, XSun’s teams needed to keep track of the drone’s structure, loads, internal volume, equipment positions and much more. They also needed a cloud platform that could help them design and engineer the drone using composites, simulation and digital prototyping and testing.

That is where the 3DXPERIENCE platform came in. 3DEXPERIENCE consolidated all the data in a single repository of truth. It also helped XSun ensure subsystems such as landing gear, propellers, batteries and the fuselage were understood by the whole team.

How the 3DXPERIENCE Lab Streamlined the Development of the SolarXOne Drone

“We have to design a very secured machine—very reliable, very light—at a relevant cost. The 3DEXPEREIENCE platform has made these solutions a reality,” said David.

XSun had access to the 3DEXPEREIENCE Lab’s features and its community of experts, which enabled the team to improve their technical skills. In fact, some had no prior experience with the platform at all. However, within a few weeks they were up and running. In the end, the team was able to produce a preliminary design within a year.

“The use of the platform made it possible to develop several things in parallel,” said David. “For example, verification of the different internal subsystems, loads placement and checking, decentering, structural simulation and aerodynamics simulation. It has been a fundamental time saver for the project. This was made possible thanks to the 3DEXPERIENCE Lab and it has been an accelerator.”

Tools that offered XSun some of the highest levels of collaboration were CATIA and SIMULIA. Every time a CAD model was updated, it would reflect in the simulation. As a result, teams could virtually validate the aircraft before producing any physical products.

To learn how 3DEXPERIENCE helped XSun collaborate on the design of the circuit board’s cooling system and how it helped them avoid a design flaw between the propeller and the landing gear, read this case study or watch the video below:

XSun Engineers discuss the design process of SolarXOne.

To learn more, check out the whitepaper Developing Better Products in the Cloud.

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