Most communications antennas on small unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) look like pencils, sticking out from the fuselage. A collaboration between Boeing Research & Technology and the University of Victoria may transform antennas to thin interchangeable patches that will work on many surfaces.

An initial copper antenna developed by Boeing for UAVs is extremely thin — comparable to a strand of hair or approximately 0.004 in. — and measures 2.5 in. x 1.4 in.

During a successful flight test, Boeing antennas were attached to the inside of a UAV built by the University of Victoria, Canada. The antenna outperformed traditional antennas, demonstrating the ability to send flight control, telemetry and video to ground systems throughout the flight.

Current UAVs have their frequencies determined by the mission, such as surveillance and search, and the antennas are tuned for the frequencies required by those missions. The new test antennas are light, removable and can be applied to several different surfaces, such as plastic, composite and fiberglass. This makes the antennas interchangeable, meaning UAV fleets will be more versatile, capable of completing many different missions.

Late this year (2018), the University of Victoria will fly a new Boeing antenna designed to operate on both conductive and non-conductive surfaces. This antenna will operate at a higher frequency and will be used for flight avoidance radar.

Corey Thacker, the principal investigator in BR&T Systems, Support & Analytics, said “These flexible antennas were fabricated using both advanced manufacturing additive and subtractive techniques, similar to 3D printing. This technology, which has IoT properties, can be extended to other applications, such as flexible hybrid electronics for inventory tracking and scanning and remote sensing and condition monitoring during factory operations. This is innovative because it reduces the installation complexity and wiring within the aircraft, which in turn lowers cost and increases Boeing's adaptability of this technology for Boeing's new and existing products.”

Raj Talwar, BR&T Canada technology manager, said, “Boeing and University of Victoria have been conducting joint research for several years. Their capabilities in UAV-related technologies are crucial for Boeing to tap into, as we explore the future of autonomy for aerospace.”