Lee’s $8M Army-funded research will reduce wide drone failures


Tonghun Lee
Tonghun Lee

Mechanical Science and Engineering Professor and Kritzer Faculty Scholar Tonghun Lee at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign recently received an $8 million grant from the U.S. Army. The four-year cooperative agreement aims to develop key technologies that will allow the Army’s unmanned air and ground vehicles to run on any type of fuel.

New technologies resulting from this effort are expected to increase unmanned vehicle performance and reliability, researchers said, and reduce complete drone failures.

“The Army’s fleet of unmanned aircraft systems often experiences performance and reliability issues due to fuel property variations and their effects on the ignition,” said Dr. Mike Kweon, program manager for the Versatile Tactical Power and Propulsion Essential Research Program at the U.S. Army’s Combat Capabilities Development Command (CCDC) Army Research Laboratory (ARL). “This results in decreased performance and potential catastrophic loss of aircraft platforms.”

Lee and his group will research comprehensive multi-fuel chemistry and ignition assistant technologies, which add energy to engines for reliable ignition.

Engines require a mixture of air and fuel, plus an ignition source – either by spark or compression – to operate. For compression-ignition engines, thermal energy generated by compression is insufficient when low ignition quality fuels are used, especially at high altitudes and in cold conditions.

To address this, Lee’s team will investigate ignition chemistry of fuels using machine learning algorithms, develop materials for novel ignition assistant technologies for flexible fuel UAVs, and investigate advanced propulsion technologies for high-speed air launch effects, in collaboration with Army scientists and researchers. Also part of this effort is Aerospace Engineering Professor Daniel Bodony, who will be contributing to design of high-performance turbo chargers for UAVs at high altitude.

“We are thrilled to be taking part in development of new technologies that will be integrated into new UAV propulsion systems in the future for the Army. Equally important is training the next generation of engineers who can serve our nation in this field of science,” said Lee. “This partnership is very exciting. It will also involve expanding the team to include experts in academia, small businesses, and industry to push concepts and ideas into future capabilities for the Army.”

The university-led research project is one of 11 funded this summer by the Army’s corporate laboratory as a part of Center for UAS Propulsion (CUP) efforts to develop technologies for multi-fuel capable hybrid-electric engines. Lee is also the academic lead at Illinois and center host for CUP. Slated to begin this fall, the research is part of a larger portfolio of multi-fuel capabilities technologies led by ARL that supports the Army Modernization Priority for Future Vertical Lift.