Wiring of ships on the Northern Sea Route © The press service of JSC “USC”

This interview was given by Sergey Evdokimov, CEO of the Yekaterinburg Airburg company, and Sergey Kuminov, chief designer of the unmanned aerial vehicle Systems (UAVs) direction.
According to them, the Phaeton drone is an aero hybrid that combines the advantages of aircraft and helicopter-type drones. The device is economical and unpretentious in operation. In addition to the Phaeton, Airburg plans to manufacture a large-sized transport UAV capable of transporting up to 500 kg of payload in Arctic conditions.

— These drones are designed to work in the harsh conditions of our Arctic region. What are these samples of equipment and at what stage is their development?

Sergey Evdokimov: Our company has developed two UAV models — Phaeton and Kolibri. These machines can perform a wide range of tasks, but, as we expect, they will be more in demand for the needs of the Northern Sea Route. The Hummingbird UAV, despite its name, will be very large, as it will be able to lift from 100 to 500 kg of payload into the air.

Another UAV in the Airburg line is the small-sized Pchelka air hybrid, which carries up to 4 kg of payload and has a flight radius of 70 km. Such a device is necessary for monitoring at distances that are redundant for the Phaeton.

— Is a person involved in the management of your devices?

Sergey Evdokimov: The control is carried out through a mobile control terminal made in the form of a tablet, but human intervention is practically not required. The flight is carried out according to the loaded flight program. If the operator wants to adjust the flight, then the radio channel is used. There is a possibility of using autonomous navigation systems, but this is a more complicated and expensive story.

Advantages of aero hibrids

— Your company is not the only company that is working on UAVs adapted for monitoring Arctic spaces. What do you see as your competitive advantage?

Sergey Evdokimov: “Phaeton” and “Kolibri” are aero hybrids, they combine the advantages of aircraft and helicopter—type UAVs. Let me explain: the main advantage of the aircraft lies in its economy and ability to cover long distances. However, large equipped platforms are required for its takeoff and landing. The helicopter is unpretentious in this regard, but very expensive to operate.

“Phaeton” and “Hummingbird” are able to travel considerable distances with very modest fuel consumption. Their power plant consists of a piston unit and electric motors that drive horizontally positioned screws.

Takeoff and landing are carried out with the help of blades, that is, in helicopter or copter mode, and horizontal flight is carried out in an airplane way: due to a piston engine. The helicopter mode allows the vehicles to take off vertically and land on minimally equipped engineering platforms. Thus, the operator is spared the need to maintain runways or use sufficiently large ejection devices.

We do not deny that under certain conditions in high latitudes it is permissible to use helicopter and airplane UAVs. However, it should be understood that copters powered by lithium-ion batteries will be able to stay in the air for about an hour, while the NSR requires a flight lasting four to five hours.
It is no secret that the most difficult stage of an aircraft flight is landing. In our devices, we tried to make this process as easy as possible. The landing is performed automatically thanks to a set of special algorithms.

— Do you have any concerns that you will not be able to implement a hybrid power plant “in hardware” due to the weak presence of domestic piston engines on the market so far?

Sergey Kuminov: Indeed, there are not so many Russian aviation piston engines at hand right now. This industry sector has not yet recovered from the degradation in the 1990s. However, the situation is improving. We are confident that in the very next few years there will be many worthy examples of domestic piston engines.

UAV “Phaeton” © Personal archive

— Do I understand correctly that you see the key task of your UAVs in ice reconnaissance in the space of the NSR?

Sergey Kuminov: This applies primarily to the “Phaeton”. The machine can monitor at a range of up to 200-250 km. This is quite enough for an adequate assessment of the ice situation. The main tasks of the Phaeton are to identify hummocks and measure the thickness of the ice.

Piles of ice fragments are detected using optics, and the thickness of the ice is determined using radar equipment. The take—off weight of the Phaeton is 56 kg, the operating speed range is 94-160 km/h, and the flight duration is four hours. Instead of the traditional wheeled chassis, the Phaeton is equipped with skids. The device is able to land neatly, including on a swinging deck. To do this, you only need a 5 × 5 m platform.

In addition to the NSR, Phaeton, we believe, will be suitable for environmental monitoring in the Arctic. Currently, through the efforts of the state and private business, quite large-scale research is being carried out aimed at preserving the ecology and biodiversity of the Arctic. Scientists cannot do without reliable and easy-to-operate drones with good optical equipment. I think that Phaeton will become a worthy assistant to environmentalists, forest protection and other services.

If we talk about the “Hummingbird”, then we see its main purpose in the transport functionality. It is suitable for the delivery of various goods to hard-to-reach areas and infrastructure facilities of the NSR. According to our calculations, loading and unloading operations will take no more than ten minutes. The flight range of this machine will be 1 thousand km, cruising speed — 250 km / h.

Prospects for the use of aero hybrids

Russian Icebreaker © The press service of JSC “USC”

— Do you take into account the fact that Russia retains very strict legislation in the field of operation of civilian drones?

Sergey Kuminov: Of course, this is so. We are aware that the strictness of the current legislation is due to reasonable security considerations and damp approaches to the opening of airspace, especially over populated areas. However, our UAVs will be operated mainly over unpopulated terrain.

In addition, experimental operation zones have been created in Russia, where technological solutions in the field of UAVs, algorithms for the use of unmanned vehicles are being worked out, and rules for their certification are being developed. It is likely that the NSR and other territories of our boundless Arctic will also become zones of free use of UAVs for monitoring and transporting various cargoes.

— Our ships have been sailing along the Northern Sea Route for 90 years — and all this time they have been doing without drones. Maybe this technique is not so necessary nowadays?

Sergey Evdokimov: Of course, you can do without UAVs now, but in this case, the operators of the NSR will have to put up with a number of inconveniences that significantly reduce the safety and speed of passage of ice-class ships and caravans led by an icebreaker.

Remember how many ships were stuck in the waters of the Arctic Ocean and Antarctica in the USSR. The ice captivity of the court sometimes lasted several months. Their crew had to endure a lot of hardships while waiting for help and melting ice.

Jamming incidents continue to occur today. So, in November last year, in the area of the Novosibirsk Islands and the Vilkitsky Strait, six ships turned out to be in ice fetters, including the ships Selenga, Severny Proekt and Mikhail Somov. The last ship on this list is known for the fact that in 1985 it stayed in the ice captivity of Antarctica for more than six months.

Atomflot icebreakers set off to rescue the ships stuck in 2021. The operation to get out of the ice took more than two weeks. This is not such a long time, nothing critical has happened, but our fleet has incurred certain costs. In any case, the search and rescue operation diverts resources and, depending on the geographical location of the emergency, can take a lot of time.

Ships get stuck due to changes in ice conditions that could not be predicted and detected in a timely manner. These are the tasks that ice exploration should solve. With the help of UAVs and special equipment, it is possible to identify hummocks and measure the thickness of ice. Based on these data, it will be possible to lay the most optimal routes, because existing nuclear icebreakers are not able to overcome ice with a thickness of more than 3 m.

High-quality ice exploration is of particular importance for the eastern chord of the NSR, where there are areas with an ice thickness of more than 4 m. Only icebreakers of project 10510 “Leader” will be able to overcome them. Now the flagship of this project is being built at the Far Eastern Zvezda plant.

Be Alexey Zakvasin