The concept of rescuing an out-of-control drone before it crashes to the ground has still not penetrated far into the nascent unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) industry, but parachute manufacturer Fruity Chutes aims to change that. Unlike a helicopter, multi-rotor drones cannot autorotate to the ground after losing power, and a ballistic system that pops out a parachute can save an expensive vehicle from certain destruction as well as protect people on the ground from the impact of something falling out of the sky.
Gene Engelgau founded Fruity Chutes in 2007 to provide parachutes for hobby rocketeers and for payload recovery for research balloons. In 2009, he noticed that radio control modelers were asking about parachute systems, and he began supplying that market, which soon morphed into today’s growing drone industry. Fruity Chutes makes the parachute canopies and shrouds, not the ballastic mechanisms that deploy the parachutes. The company does sell Skycat’s parachute launcher and the Peregrine CO2-powered integrated launcher, fitted with Fruity Chutes designed to land drones of various sizes. Customers include Boeing, SpaceX and Textron as well as Google, which has flown balloons and drones for airborne Internet research purposes. Drones equipped with Fruity Chutes systems range from small UAVs (two to three pounds) to large (700-pound) fixed-wing UAVs.
Drone chutes aren’t just for rescuing failing aircraft but also for recovery of fixed-wing UAVs in hostile terrain. While a fixed-wing drone can land safely in a clear area, that isn’t always available. A Canadian drone operator flies its fixed-wing aircraft with Fruity Chutes that pop open to allow for a soft landing without the need for a skilled pilot to steer the craft into a clear space. “They also can take off with a catapult when there's nowhere suitable to land,” Engelgau said, “at mining sites, for example, where it’s rocky. In that case the chute recovery becomes primary and not just secondary.”
Unlike one-time-use ballistic parachute systems mounted to some general aviation aircraft, drone chute systems can be reused until they wear out, often hundreds of times. The deployment mechanism, whether mechanical like the Skycat or CO2-based like the Peregrine system, can be reset in the field and the chute repacked for reuse. The chute canopies are made from 1.1-ounce calendared ripstop nylon that meets Mil Spec PIA-C 44378 Type IV. The shroud lines are made of 400-pound test IIIa Paraline for larger chutes or high-strength Spectra for small chutes.
Fruity Chutes start with simple systems that use a drogue chute to pull out the main chute, which works as long as the aircraft is moving through the air, and thus these are limited to fixed-wing UAVs. Cost for a three- to five-kg fixed-wing UAV is $225 to $300. Multi-rotor drones require ballistic deployment so the chute is ejected out and away from the drone. A Skycat system with a Fruity Chutes canopy sells for about $500 for a lightweight drone and up to $900 for a 10-kg drone. Peregrine systems with canopy sell in the $3,000 range, for drones weighing up to 100 kg. Fruity Chutes doesn’t sell canopies for manned aircraft, and Engelgau isn’t currently interested in that market as it is well served by existing companies, and manned aircraft parachute recovery systems entail extra layers of certification and liability.
Engelgau sees plenty of opportunities for drone parachute systems because of rules designed to protect people beneath drones, but also to prevent losing a device that costs tens of thousands of dollars. If a drone crashes, he explained, “you’re pretty much guaranteed a bad outcome. With a chute, there’s a high probability of a good outcome.” He believes that regulators will allow more drone flying over people when the drones are equipped with parachutes. A parachute cuts the energy of impact by 98 percent, he said. “A chute system is like an airbag or a seatbelt for cars; it’s a safety device with a clear benefit.”
While more countries’ regulators are embracing drone parachutes, not many drone manufacturers have done so, he said. Just as the auto industry finally added modern safety features after they were mandated, Engelgau expects that regulators will favor drones equipped with parachute systems, especially when flown over populated areas. “There’s a huge opportunity, especially down the road as more countries mandate that operators need chute systems. This has already happened in Europe. They’ve taken the approach that they have to limit impact energy to 69 joules, to fly over people or populated areas.”
A factor holding back the addition of parachute recovery systems to drones is that many drone manufacturers don’t make available a servo channel and switch on the transmitter to operate the chute. Operators can purchase a separate system with its own transmitter and servo to activate a chute, which has the advantage of providing redundancy because it isn’t dependent on the main transmitter/receiver system. “But manufacturers are not motivated [to include the extra servo channel] because they’re not forced to do it,” he said. As more operators ask for parachute recovery systems, drone manufacturers should also add features to incorporate these systems into their products, Engelgau said.
Fruity Chutes has sold products to 3,000 customers, and it offers 40 different parachute models in four product lines with 150 accessory items.