Hoburg accepts the Innovator of the Year award from Bea Riemschneider, Editorial Director for R&D Magazine

Warren “Woody” Hoburg, PhD—the creator of a long-endurance UAV designed to stay aloft for more than five days—has been selected as R&D Magazine’s 2017 Innovator of the Year.

Hoburg was presented with the award at the 55th annual R&D 100 Awards black tie ceremony, held at the Walt Disney World Swan Resort in Orlando, Florida, Nov. 17. In addition to recognizing Hoburg, the gala event also honored the recipients of the 55th annual R&D 100 Awards—an international competition that recognizes the 100 most exceptional innovations in science and technology from the past year.

“It is a tremendous honor to receive the 2017 Innovator of the Year award.  Being selected was a huge surprise,” said Hoburg at the gala. “As I consider the incredible awardees honored this evening, I am struck by how many grand complex challenges you are taking on. I am inspired not only by your innovative solutions, but by the ways you’ve leveraged existing technologies in unexpected ways.”

Hoburg created the long-endurance UAV, known as the Jungle Hawk Owl, during his time as an assistant professor of Aeronautics and Astronautics at MIT. The Pittsburgh native recently left the university after he was selected by NASA to join the 2017 Astronaut Candidate Class. He reported for duty in August 2017 to begin two years of training as an Astronaut Candidate. Upon completion, he will be assigned technical duties in the Astronaut Office while he awaits a flight assignment.

Creating the Jungle Hawk Owl

The Jungle Hawk Owl was created to address a need for an inexpensive, lightweight vehicle to carry communication payloads for use in disaster response. The MIT Lincoln Laboratory had been launching lightweight communication payloads, which are less than 10 pounds each, using weather balloons. However, this technique only resulted in a few hours of communication before the balloons would float out of range.

With funding from the U.S. Air Force, Hoburg and a team of MIT students partnered with MIT Lincoln Laboratory to create a better vehicle to carry the communication payloads. The goal was to create an aircraft that could autonomously carry the payloads up 15,000 feet—the height required for a clear pathway for the communicate signal across a long range—and could continue to do so for up to five days.

To determine the perfect design, Hoburg and his team performed significant modeling using GPkit, a software tool developed by Hoburg that allows around 200 constraints and physical models to be considered simultaneously, ensuring the optimal aircraft design. The team initially planned to create a solar-powered drone, but the GPkit software indicated that a gasoline-powered drone was the most efficient solution.

In the fall of 2016, the team built a prototype drone following the dimensions determined using Hoburg’s software tool. To keep the vehicle lightweight, they used materials such as carbon fiber for its wings and fuselage, and Kevlar for the tail and nosecone, which houses the payload. The researchers designed the UAV to be easily taken apart and stored in a FedEx box, to be shipped to any disaster region and quickly reassembled.

The final drone itself weighs 50 pounds and requires only 15 gallons of fuel, which weighs 90 pounds. With the 10-pound communication payload, the total weight of the drone at takeoff is 150 pounds. In their initial tests, the drone successfully took off, flew around and landed safely.

Prior to joining the faculty at MIT, Hoburg graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering in 2008 from MIT and a Master of Science and a PhD in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at the University of California, Berkeley. After finishing his PhD thesis on formulating optimization problems for aircraft design, Hoburg worked for one year in industry, taking a position in product development and applied math in Boeing Commercial Airplanes in Seattle, Washington.

Read the full feature on Hoburg here.