Dossier: the Penguin C UAV

Ian Bamsey visits UAV Factory in Latvia to discover the secrets of the remarkable Penguin C.

The ethos of the Penguin unmanned aerial vehicle is extreme endurance for civilian applications such as pipeline monitoring, mapping and search and rescue missions. In 2013, Professor David Schmale of Virginia Tech was one of Popular Science magazine’s ‘Brilliant Ten’ for his work in tracking dangerous microorganisms that surf atmospheric waves; he uses a Penguin B platform in that work.

A Penguin B has been used by Centum to verify its new product LifeSeeker, an innovative aerial onboard system that can detect mobile telephones belonging to missing people and report their position to search units.

The Penguin B holds the world endurance record for a UAV, set in 2012, at 54.4 hours of non-stop flight. It was the company’s first model following the establishment of UAV Factory in 2009 by Latvian Konstantins Popiks. The ‘A’ version was a prototype that was developed while Popiks was completing a Masters degree in engineering at Liverpool University in England.

Penguin C UAV

An exploded view of Penguin C identifying the main elements

Popiks admits that he found development of the Penguin harder than he imagined, as his only prior experience was of building and flying radio-controlled model aircraft. As a youth he had been part of the Latvian national team in competitions for radio-controlled aircraft and rocket-launched gliders, which he built himself. Design was trial and error, he admits, while construction used composite airframe technology, albeit on a ‘build it at home’ basis.

Popiks notes that once he went to Liverpool University he was able to take a more scientific approach to design, and he pays tribute to the quality of the staff on his course. Advanced software tools rather than wind tunnel testing gave the Penguin its aerodynamic form, which has stood the test of time.

While still at the university he found backing to set up an airframe production company in Latvia. “I did the design in Liverpool, while my colleagues in Latvia did the fabrication,” he explains. “I worked around the clock to help them whenever I came back on vacation.” In the end, “two-and-a-half” examples of the Penguin A were built and flown as prototypes, the ‘half’ being explained by a number of crashes during this experimental phase.

Having been established in its current guise in 2009, UAV Factory developed the Penguin B on the basis of the experience of the A model and manufacturing refinements such as improved moulds. It supplied its first customer in 2010, a competitor in the Australian Outback Challenge. In this, contestants have to locate a mannequin in the desert in a mock-up search and rescue mission using a UAV and, having done so, supply it with a bottle of water.

UAV Factory started out selling just a composite Penguin airframe, with customers looking elsewhere for the other components to produce a complete aircraft. “We had good aero and good composite work so we had confidence in our airframe”, explains Popiks. “We put it out at a reasonable cost – there was nothing else like it on the market.”

Popiks says he recognised from the beginning that a step-by-step approach to developing the company would be necessary. First came the airframe, then an increasing number of subsystems until UAV Factory could supply a complete UAV using mostly in-house components. Indeed, these days it can supply the engine and the control and launch systems, and all sub-assemblies are available as individual components that can be used with other UAVs.

Whereas the B is a platform that is sold without a data link, autopilot or payload and is tailored for each specific application, the latest iteration – the Penguin C – is a turnkey package. With this model the customer only has to confirm the required payload. Whereas that lack of flexibility might be a drawback in certain applications (and the B remains on sale) it does allow more complex packaging within the same basic architecture. That in turn allows additional features to be added. It has, for example, provided the scope to permit the development of a parachute landing system.

Learn more about the Penguin UAS >