Cardboard drones running open source flight software take off in Ukraine and beyond

'CORVO' ships with tape and glue, gives defense orgs just-in-time drone capability for a song

An Australian engineering company has created a cardboard drone that runs on open source software, standard hardware, and can be assembled and flown with no prior experience.

The Corvo Precision Payload Delivery System (PPDS) costs less than $3,500 apiece, a price made possible by the craft's use of FOSS and commercial-off-the-shelf hardware.

Michael Partridge, SYPAQ's general manager for Innovation & Strategic Programs (I&SP), told The Register that Corvo uses ArduPilot autopilot software, unspecified hardware that SYPAQ customizes, and waxed cardboard.

The drone takes around an hour to assemble, we're told, and its lithium-ion batteries give it a range of up to 100km (62 miles) with a 3kg (6.6lb) payload.

The craft ships in a flat pack complete with tape, glue, and instructions on how to assemble it. A tablet computer is also included so users can tell Corvo where to fly by entering GPS coordinates. A wired connection to upload that flight plan is required, but once Corvo is aloft, it will proceed along its route, at a specified altitude, and land itself at its determined destination.

Partridge declined to discuss details of the tech on board the drones for operational reasons but said SYPAQ has ensured that flight plans are encrypted so that if a Corvo is captured, the location of its pilots can't be retrieved.

SYPAQ will happily ship a single Corvo, but also offers a "capability pack" that includes multiple craft, spares, and the slingshot-powered launch ramp the craft needs to get airborne.

Partridge said single Corvo units have survived more than 20 flights and that the waxed cardboard wing can handle moisture well, without losing its aerodynamic qualities.

Users in the Ukrainian armed forces have adapted the craft to different roles too. Partridge said adding a camera requires some light hacking – of the drone's cardboard airframe.

"It has a cargo bay [and] you can do whatever you want in there within the 3kg payload. You can cut a hole through the aircraft to look through it and insert a camera."

For now, SYPAQ hasn't given Corvo's onboard computer wireless capabilities, partly to reduce cost and partly to ensure stealth. But Partridge said Corvos have carried action cameras like the GoPro and users are happy to retrieve removable media once the plane lands. SYPAQ is working on payloads that allow wireless transmission of images, possibly over long distances.

He told The Register that Australia's military, and others around the world, are keen on Corvo as it represents a just-in-time drone capability that gives them an eye in the sky or the ability to deliver payloads when surface transport becomes unfeasible. Emergency services are another target market: he mentioned the ability to reconnoitre a recently flooded region or observing the progress of a fire as ideal applications.

Using off-the-shelf electronics makes Corvo resilient because damaged parts can easily be replaced or borrowed from another unit. It also means SYPAQ can innovate quickly because it has less development work to do when creating new models.

The cardboard airframe is also easy to work with, both in development and in the field. Users in Ukraine have patched up their Corvos with cardboard they had to hand.

Partridge believes Corvo's combination of "low cost and significant endurance" means drones will find new roles in the military and beyond, and show that the craft don't have to be expensive or require technical skills.

"We are really proud and happy to be delivering something people can innovate with," he told The Register. "It is a big enabling aircraft." ®

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