Designing a drone for transportation in 2014 was a different challenge than it is today.Back then, the leading drones in the market were DJI Phantom, used for aerial photography, and drones for military purposes. The drones in the market were designed to either take pictures of people or to kill them. I was charged with the task of designing our first drone. Since Matternet's team didn't include any Mechanical Engineers at the time, I had to take on the responsibility of engineering and manufacturing on top of designing. In retrospective, having design and engineering "live in one person" introduced many challenges (overall affecting the quality of each) but also enabled me to experiment and take on crazy ideas while letting each discipline affect the other.
Approaching the ideation phase, I knew that the payload had to be the center of the vehicle both visually and physically, to enhance the trust we wanted to create. I wanted people to immediately recognize that the drone is for delivery rather than any other purpose.
Although having a lot of experience visualizing Matternet drones (as a freelancer from London) this drone was different since it had to work for real :)
The challenge was to balance different features and work within harsh constraints in a short development timeline with no professional engineering help.
Early in the ideation phase, I designed a circle around the payload. It felt right for various functional, operational and form reasons.
Sketches: All through the process I was very fortunate to collaborate with Marc Shillum (CXO at the time) I learnt a lot from him and enjoyed our time together.
When designing a quadrocopter that is based on symmetry and balance, it makes sense to maintain the center of gravity in the middle of the four spinning propellers.
It seemed natural to position the battery on the top of the payload for various reasons:
1.Maintaining CG (battery is the heaviest part of the vehicle)
2.Eliminating payload lock mechanism, and by that saving weight and complexity (constraining the payload from 5 directions and blocking it from the sixth)
3. Allowing the user to interact with the drone from the top for a more safe and easy interaction. (Until this day most other delivery drones require the users to stick their hands under the drone and in the way of the propellers)
Center of gravity guided the rest of the architecture by creating two symmetrical volumes that populate the electronics and parachute.
Having experience in additive manufacturing (AM/ 3d printing) and SLS technology from my previous job, I embarked on an experimental process of 3D printing our drones.
AM allowed us to:
1. Save weight by fusing parts and details.
2. Avoid high tooling costs.
3. Iterate hardware fast
4. Fly our prototypes!
Although the first version worked, we progressed to a monocoque approach to reduce part count and reduce assembly time.
I continued to experiment with both structure and materials.
After some failed experiments trying to develop an in-house parachute system, I advised to partner with a professional parachute supplier, and customize their system in M1.
Managing the integration project in an unusually short timeline was stressful but was all worth it once we saw the first deployment of the parachute.
The parachute system only deploys when something goes wrong in the vehicle or if it flies outside its pre-defined envelope for some reason.
The parachute and its redundant control system allowed M1 to get the first drone certification by the Swiss aviation authorities.
Since safety is our first guideline when designing any component of the ecosystem, we made an effort to incorporate propeller guards. The challenge was how to create a lightweight and rigid structure in such a big object.
It was incredible to experience how non-threatening it was standing near a drone with covered propellers.
After a lot of experimentation, we laid out the trade-offs and decided to put on hold covering the propellers and tackle the safety challenge from a completely different approach.
It was important to me that we produce a simple and easy to understand object which will not threaten its surroundings.
Details such as; not having pointy landing gear, hiding most of the fastening details, white matte finish and using simple geometry contributed to this.
At one point of the development process, I thought that it would be nicer (and more efficient) to start naming our drones after inspiring creatives.
These are some of them:
The M1 development journey was the most challenging task that I have taken at that point in my career.
Of course it was a challenge because of technical complexity and managing this complex development process, but today I feel that the biggest lessons that I have learned had nothing to do with design but rather with people.
I learned that belief, hard work and courage can overcome the most adverse, confident and loud voices around the table.
I believe that I would have failed if I didn't have the support of a few influential people around me. Today I am very happy to be a part of a such a professional team that understands the power of good design.