Developing Drone Brain

You’ve probably heard about drones. And this blog will give you a deeper insight of what it takes to develop the brain that controls the drone!

First, some background. Piaggio Aero develops aircraft (first one in 1922) and engines. One of their successful project is the P180 Avanti II aircraft, which is a small Italian design. The P180 can fly at 745 km/h and has a range of operation of about 2,795 km. It is known as the fastest twin turboprop aircraft in the world with a proven uneventful service record of more than 20 years and 800,000 flight hours.

Piaggio’s original challenge was to transform this conventional manned aircraft into an unmanned vehicle that would operate with a high degree of autonomy. In addition, the vehicle command and control architecture had to be certified at the highest level (DO-178 DAL A), and the design had to support functionalities for future (known and unknown) operation requirements. All of that in a very short time frame.

P1HH unmanned aerial system

Courtesy Piaggio Aero

Starting from that P180 aircraft, Piaggio designed the P1HH, a state-of-the-art unmanned aerial system (UAS) designed for intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR) missions. The P1HH provides an unmatched combination of range, wide operative speeds, fast climb gradient, high operative ceiling and a variety of payloads, providing a powerful yet flexible defense system that outperforms other medium-altitude long endurance (MALE) systems.

The brain of the drone is the vehicle control and management system (VCMS). It is in charge of all critical functions: flight control, propulsion, electrical power-generation, landing gear, braking, ice detection/protection, navigation and communication systems. The integrated flight management system coordinates all these subsystems. Finally, the heath management system monitors all functions to allow for reconfiguration in case of failure. Note that a system is itself subdivided into minor functions, such as for the engine, engine logics, fire detection and fuel management.

Piaggio Aero decided to apply model-based development and use ANSYS SCADE to create the so-called minor functions. Functions were developed either directly from the requirements or imported from existing Matlab/Simulink, thanks to the SCADE Simulink gateway. The models were verified and tested using the SCADE LifeCycle qualified testing environment, which proved its usefulness automate this process, since the number of tests can grow exponentially as more inputs and models are involved. Models of the different functions were progressively integrated on host to form a kind of virtual VCMS. Tests developed from requirements were then completed with data from the real world. In doing this, most of the problems were identified and solved before system integration. Only a few problems related to hardware interfaces have been found in the final integration stage.

As a result, around 125,000 lines of code were automatically generated from the SCADE models using the SCADE Suite KCG C code generator, which represents around 86% of the total embedded code.  It took only five months for nine software engineers and four to 10 system engineers to build the software of the project.  With SCADE, developers typically report a 50% decrease in development cost and effort.  Piaggio exceeded this!

The P1 HH demo’s first flight was conducted in August 2013. Full achievement of the project is expected by 2015.


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