MICRODRONES YESTERDAY, TODAY AND TOMORROW
The whole is greater than the sum of its parts.
The history of Microdrones is a story of friendship, tenacious innovation and true passion for professional data collection. It’s a story about integration and mastering the components and workflow for professional applications.
Since its founding by three extraordinary individuals—Udo Juerss, Jan Wendel and Daniel Schübeler in 2005—Microdrones has set the industry benchmark for commercial UAV applications. As the developer of the world’s first commercial quadcopter, the company has pushed the boundaries of conventional thinking, innovating the seemingly impossible and shaping the future for long-flying, cost-cutting, time-saving, precision-measuring, weather-resisting drone systems.
Since its early years with a handful of employees based in Germany to fielding a staff of more than240 employees worldwide, Microdrones continues to transform the commercial drone industry with fully integrated systems.
Today, the company supports a powerful lineup of solutions to meet a wide range of needs, from detecting methane gas, to surveying and mapping, to implementing LiDAR for producing 3-D point clouds optimized for land surveying, construction, oil & gas, and mining applications. By pairing robust drones with cutting-edge sensors, Microdrones delivers advanced turn-key solutions that make it easy for businesses to start using UAS for previously unimagined activities.
The Sum of Its Parts
The history of Microdrones is a complex mix of brilliance, vision and creativity.
Microdrones President Vivien Heriard-Dubreuil explains, “I don’t believe that there is another company in the world that can provide the complete integrated solution at all levels—from the airframe to the payloads and navigation to data management, post processing and visualization. And while we firmly believe that our whole is greater than the sum of our parts, we also recognize and appreciate the development and delivery of those critical ‘parts’ that have positioned us so strongly today.”
The history of Microdrones begins in 2005 with Daniel Schübeler, Udo Juerss and Jan Wendel. Daniel Schübeler, Founder and Managing Partner of Schübeler Technologies, recalled, “Udo and Jan really did a great job with the quadcopter concept and developing the algorithms. What we needed then was an airframe, landing gear, propellers, a pro-pulsion system, all kinds of structures, and that was my role.”
A Fan Favorite
For Schübeler, the evolution to Microdrones began with a passion for very fast model airplanes.
Serious aero-modeling is a niche market sitting halfway between engineering and very high end hobbyists. “With stock components, the fun of flying a fast model airplane just isn’t there,” said Schübeler. “So I started to modify things. I learned about propellers and things like RPMs, tip speed, exhaust velocity.”
The turning point came when he created his first high-powered ducted fan. “In order to make my model look like a jet, which has no propeller, I had to hide the propeller within a cowling. This was essentially a ducted fan,” Schübeler said.
It was 1996 and Schübeler was still a teenager, and with no formal engineering background he had created something that was in fact quite special. “At that time there was no really good, electrically driven, ducted fan [EDF] available. The product was so good that many people asked if I would sell it. That’s when I made the decision, ‘I can make a business out of this.’” At the age of 20, Schübeler launched Schübeler Model Systems and Propulsion Systems in 1997 in his home village of Hembsen. His parents described what he was doing as “brotlose kunst,” a German expression that essentially means a fruitless activity. “They told me, ‘You’ll never make any money,’” Schübeler recalled with a grin. “My dad will not like me telling you this, poor guy.”
Just What He Needed
To gain more knowledge, Schübeler went back to university. “I had the business running in the same year that I started my university studies,” he said. “One of the things I found out at university was that this first EDF I had made was actually something called an axial ventilator or axial compressor. And I found out that mine was a really good one. There were no big design mistakes.”
Having learned what he needed to know at university, he went back to working 100% on his business. With a very uncommon and very useful high-power axial compressor in hand, Schübeler took his business to the internet. “We launched our website in 1998-99 and we were immediately globally visible,” he said. “So what happened is that other people approached us, other businesses.” “Our first industrial customer was the DLR in Göttingen. They had the idea to simulate the exhaust stream of a jet engine in a wind tunnel model. Our product is perfect for that. We realized that there were applications well beyond the aero modelers’ market, and we now had two businesses in parallel. One was aero modeling and the other was selling specially modified products to industry customers.” Today, Schübeler Technologies GmbH is a premier manufacturer of advanced fan propulsion jets, fan drive nozzles, and lightweight composite materials fabrication for the commercial and industrial markets.
This was the state of affairs when Schübeler met Udo Juerss and Jan Wendel.
Airframes and Algorithms
As far as Udo Jeurss knows, he is the worldwide originator of the quadcopter. “Of course I can’t say anything about what goes on in the military,” he told us, “but from what I could see, there was nothing else like it at that time; this was the early 2000s. All the push that we can see in the last 15 years, with quads and octos and hexos and so on, it all seems to have started with us.”
Juerss had already sold a few hundred small, remote-controlled quadcopters of his own design. “It was just out of intetest, a kind of technical exercise,” he said. “We wanted to know, ‘Can we do this with today’s equipment?’ These were still hobby aircraft.”
It was around that time that Juerss met Jan Wendel, then a Ph.D. student at the University of Karlsruhe and an expert in GNSS/INS algorithms. The two became fast friends, based on their common interest in technical matters and guitar playing. “I had the impression that Udo’s airframe had a lot of potential,” Wendel recalled. “Not long after that, I implemented the first algorithm that was able to stabilize the quadcopter. Until then, it had to be controlled completely by the remote-control pilot, and it needed considerable practice to fly.
“Udo is a true visionary whose innovative approach to unmanned aerial flight literally took Microdrones to new heights. Our company wouldn’t be the leader in providing the most valuable UAS platforms in the world without his knowledge and expertise.“ ”Vivien Heriard-Dubreuil, Microdrones President
“Udo was the mastermind of Microdrones,” Wendel said. “He was the one who had the vision that we could pull off something really unique. He brought in the knowledge in hardware design and microprocessors. I brought in the navigation algorithms and the first generation of flight control algorithms.” Heriard-Dubreuil explains that, “Udo is a true visionary whose innovative approach to unmanned aerial flight literally took Microdrones to new heights. Our company wouldn’t be the leader in providing the most valuable UAS platforms in the world without his knowledge and expertise.
We are proud to have him on our global team and eagerly anticipate his future breakthroughs.”
And that was when Udo brought young propulsion master Daniel Schübeler on board. The original Microdrones trinity was complete.
“When I started with Udo and Jan, we wanted to build a drone, a quadcopter,” Schübeler said. “That’s basically a hovering platform, so for sure it needs a carbon-fiber frame, and I knew it needed huge, high-volume-flow, low-velocity pro-pellers to be energy efficient. This way you can carry heavy payloads, you can fly at higher altitudes. This is possible only with a huge propeller.
“Other companies were also trying to do their own platforms and you still see it now—they buy some carbon-fiber tubes, carbon-fiber boards, they cut it on a machine, they screw everything together. But everything is open, you can break things, it’s not weatherproof, and it is too heavy because you don’t have the right approach for a lightweight structure.”
Schübeler knew what the right approach had to be. As an aero modeler, he was familiar with the concept of the ‘monocoque’, where loads are supported through an object’s external skin, similar to an eggshell. “With the monocoque we fulfill this bodywork function together with the structural function, and I think we are still the only ones that have a true monocoque.”
Aerodynamics were another key consideration. “Everything counts when you are trying to maximize efficiency,” he said. “Microdrones is a mapping company. That means you go back and forth at a certain speed. Even if the speed is not too high, the drag coefficient already counts, and the lift coefficient of the system also counts. So if you look at the md4-3000, you will see very low drag and you will see a little bit of positive lift and not a down force. One problem with multirotor systems is that they create a down force and the propellers have to work against this.
“I saw the task,” he said, “to lift a pay-load, like a camera, and move it around, not too fast. It would have four motors, it had to be rainproof, so the shape was quite clear to me. We needed a monocoque with a center and four arms and four motor holders, motor covers and a landing gear. The md4-200 was our first design and we are still very close to this shape today.” Key specs like flight time prove Schübeler was right.
In the Fold
The relationship between Schübeler and Microdrones has evolved over the years. Originally Daniel Schübeler was a founding partner while Schübeler Technologies was a supplier. Today, under new President Heriard-Dubreuil, Microdrones owns Schübeler Technologies. Heriard-Dubreuil noted, “As part of Microdrones, the Schübeler team delivers new aviation technology and capabilities to our customers in the form of next generation unmanned aircraft. These UAV advancements will support our overall applications and solutions, allowing professionals to efficiently collect data and transform it into useful information that drives business decision making in the field.
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