Students In Cambodia Create a Drone Taxi Using Materials Found Around Their School

In the mid 1980’s, MacGyver was one of the most popular television shows. When presented with a challenge, MacGyver would apply his extensive knowledge of physical sciences to build a solution using whatever mundane tools he found around him. The term “MacGyver” has since gone on to describe anyone who solves a problem by thinking outside the box and using objects within their environment. A team of students from Cambodia has become the MacGyvers of today with a novel drone they built.

As the capital of Cambodia, Phnom Penh is also the nation’s most populous city, with 2,281,951 residents. Like many rapidly growing urban environments, Phnom Penh faces the problem of having roads that are too small to accommodate the steady increase in vehicles. Inspired to solve urban mobilization, students from Phnom Penh’s National Polytechnic Institute of Cambodia (NPIC) have built a drone taxi using supplies they found in their classroom, just like MacGyver would have done.

Drones for urban mobility are not a new concept. Many foresee them as the next big frontier in drone technology. However, the team from NPIC is in no way trying to compete with the likes of eHang or Volocopter to build a network of urban drone taxis. “We had this idea that we wanted to solve some problems for our society by making a drone taxi, as well as drones for firefighters,” said Lonh Vannsith, the project’s test pilot. “For high-rise buildings that the average fire trucks can’t reach, this drone could carry water hoses to very high floors on the building.” Unlike eHang and Volocopter, the students at NPIC had a very limited budget to build their drone, which is why they channeled their inner MacGyver.

With only $20,000 in their budget, the students built a metal frame around a chair they found in one of NPIC’s classrooms. The chair sits on a platform and has footrests to allow a pilot to sit comfortably with some stability. 8 large rotors encircle the metal frame of the drone, called the NPIC Human Carrier Drone. Lonh and his team spent 3 years working on this project. There were several delays because of COVID, and the team had to wait for the propellers and frame to arrive from overseas. But they finally got the chance to test out their prototype earlier this past September.

Wearing a motorcycle helmet with a GoPro on top, and holding a small tablet controller in hand, Lonh climbed into the repurposed classroom chair to take off in the drone taxi. The NPIC Human Carrier Drone can carry a 132lb payload, or pilot, for a flight time of 10 minutes, over a distance of 0.6 miles. With the drone’s maximum payload, it can only reach an elevation of about 13ft. And though the drone has limited flight abilities, video footage of the test flights was fairly smooth. “The drone, when we see it flying without a pilot, there is a lot of shaking but when I sit on it and fly it becomes more stable and I feel so excited,” Lohn said.

Lohn went on to say that the team is looking to raise another $40,000 to expand the project over the next 2 years. Sarin Sereyvatha, NPIC’s head of research and development technology, explained that the initial prototype is a great starting point, but there is still a lot of work to be done. The goal is to make tweaks that will allow the drone to support a greater payload and fly longer, further and higher. If the team can achieve that, then there is a possibility that these drones could be sold. “In principle,” Sarin said, “if we make one drone, the cost is expensive but if we make them to sell on the market, the cost will go down.” Using what they had around them to build a drone capable of carrying a person is something that would earn Angus MacGyver’s approval.

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