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The University of Southampton

Research project: Project MAVIS: exploring the upper atmosphere

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MAVIS stands for Massive Atmospheric Volume Instrumentation System. The goal is to develop low cost, biodegradable micro air vehicles, a fleet of which can be launched from a high altitude balloon to gather data on the block of atmosphere beneath as they descend. Such data is essential for building better models of our weather and climate.

Funded by the Engineering and Physical Sciences Research Council, MAVIS aims to develop a new kind of tool for atmospheric science: a fleet of sensor platforms that can be launched en masse into the upper atmosphere to gather measurements on a variety of atmospheric physics and chemistry variables, even when post-flight retrieval is not possible (e.g., in remote areas). These requirements mean that the ‘vehicle’ has to be light, cheap, biodegradable and able to transmit the data it measures via a radio link.

Our answer to these requirements is a paper aeroplane – a very special paper aeroplane, whose ‘airframe’ also acts as a substrate for its on-board systems. In other words, all the electronic circuitry needed to make the measurements and send them home is printed directly onto the paper. We have devised an ‘aircraft production line' that consists entirely of consumer-grade products, such as an inkjet printer (used to print the tracks of the circuit in conductive silver ink) and an electronic paper cutter — all MAVIS vehicles are generated by feeding ordinary photo paper, ink and the required sensors and ancillary electronic components into this production line.

‘Agnes’, a paper aeroplane with atmospheric sensing capabilities
‘Agnes’, a paper aeroplane with atmospheric sensing capabilities

This manufacturing process also allows us a great deal of freedom in terms of rapid prototyping — the integration of a new sensor or any other modification to the circuit can be transformed into ‘flight ready’ reality in under two hours (see the image of the ‘Papersonde’ as an example of a different architecture produced with the same production line). The ultimate goal here is the concept of downloadable hardware — much the same way as software updates are downloaded today, anyone in possession of such a simple desktop production line should be able to download a new design, print it and populate it with the appropriate components, ready for deployment. Such production lines could then be set up, for example, at remote research stations, where scientists can create these paper sensorcraft as and when needed, featuring the most up to date circuitry designed hours before, perhaps thousands of miles away.

 A MAVIS ‘Papersonde’ ready for launch on a high altitude Helium balloon
A MAVIS ‘Papersonde’ ready for launch, high altitude Helium balloon

One of the research areas for future development is to design ways in which fleets of MAVIS aircraft can work together as a swarm that can respond in an autonomous manner to changes in the environment (for example, when one of the vehicles identifies a promising region in the search for an aerosol cloud) — see the video of a simulation of a swarm of vehicles deployed over the mountains of he remote island of South Georgia, a site of a great deal of scientific interest.

Associated research themes

First in Flight

Related research groups

Computational Engineering and Design
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