Automatic Control for Aerobatic Maneuvering of Agile Fixed-Wing UAVs


The use of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has become ubiquitous in a broadening range of applications, including many civilian uses. UAVs are typically categorized into two categories: conventional fixed-wing aircraft, which are associated with efficient flight over long distances, and rotor-craft, which are associated with short flights requiring maneuverability. An emerging class of UAVs, agile fixed-wing UAVs, are bridging the gap between fixed-wing and rotor-craft with efficient and maneuverable flight capabilities. This article presents a single physics-based controller capable of aerobatic maneuvering of agile fixed-wing UAVs. We first demonstrate autonomous flight in a conventional high-fidelity in-house simulation with this controller, and then implement the algorithm on a Pixhawk micro-controller. A hardware-in-the-loop (HIL) environment is developed and used to further develop autonomous aerobatic flight, followed by outdoor flight tests in windy conditions. Our control system successfully tracks position and orientation times histories to achieve autonomous extreme aerobatic maneuvers including knife-edge, rolling Harrier, hover, and aggressive turnaround.

This is a preview of subscription content, log in to check access.


  1. 1.

    Gavrilets, V., Mettler, B., Feron, E.: Human-inspired control logic for automated maneuvering of miniature helicopter. J. Guid. Control. Dyn. 27, 752–759 (2004)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  2. 2.

    Abbeel, P., Coates, A., Quigley, M., Ng, A.Y.: An application of reinforcement learning to aerobatic helicopter flight. In: Schölkopf, P.B., Platt, J.C., Hoffman, T. (eds.) Advances in neural information processing systems 19, pp 1–8. MIT Press, Cambridge (2007)

  3. 3.

    Mellinger, D., Michael, N., Kumar, V.: Trajectory generation and control for precise aggressive maneuvers with quadrotors. Int. J. Robot. Res. 31, 664–674 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  4. 4.

    Green, W.E., Oh, P.Y.: A Hybrid MAV for Ingress and Egress of Urban Environments. IEEE Trans. Robot. 25, 253–263 (2009)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  5. 5.

    Sobolic, F.M.: Agile flight control techniques for a fixed-wing aircraft. Thesis Massachusetts Institute of Technology (2009)

  6. 6.

    Moore, J., Cory, R., Tedrake, R.: Robust post-stall perching with a simple fixed-wing glider using LQR-Trees, vol. 9 (2014)

  7. 7.

    Ure, N., Inalhan, G.: Autonomous control of unmanned combat air vehicles: design of a multimodal control and flight planning framework for agile maneuvering. IEEE Control. Syst. 32(5), 74–95 (2012)

    MathSciNet  Article  MATH  Google Scholar 

  8. 8.

    Hall, J.K., McLain, T.W.: Aerobatic maneuvering of miniature air vehicles using attitude trajectories. In: AIAA guidance, navigation and control conference and exhibit American institute of aeronautics and astronautics Inc. (2008)

  9. 9.

    Park, S.: Autonomous aerobatics on commanded path. Aerosp. Sci. Technol. 22(1), 64–74 (2012)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  10. 10.

    Barry, A.J., Jenks, T., Majumdar, A., Lin, H.T., Ros, I.G., Biewener, A.A., Tedrake, R.: Flying between obstacles with an autonomous knife-edge maneuver. In: 2014 IEEE, international conference on robotics and automation (ICRA), pp 2559–2559 (2014)

  11. 11.

    Etkin, B.: Dynamics of flight: stability and control. Wiley, Australia, Limited (1982)

    Google Scholar 

  12. 12.

    Khan, W.: Dynamics modeling of agile fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicles. PhD Thesis, McGill University, Montreal (2016)

    Google Scholar 

  13. 13.

    McCormick, B.: Aerodynamics, aeronautics, and flight mechanics, 2nd edn. Wiley, Hoboken (1995)

    Google Scholar 

  14. 14.

    Khan, W., Nahon, M.: A propeller model for general forward flight conditions. International Journal of Intelligent Unmanned Systems 3, 72–92 (2015)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  15. 15.

    Levin, J.M., Paranjape, A., Nahon, M.: Agile fixed-wing UAV, motion planning with knife-edge maneuvers. In: 2017 international conference on unmanned aircraft systems (ICUAS), pp 114–123 (2017)

  16. 16.

    Bulka, E., Nahon, M.: Autonomous control of agile fixed-wing UAVs, performing aerobatic maneuvers. In: 2017 international conference on unmanned aircraft systems (ICUAS), pp 104–113 (2017)

  17. 17.

    Khan, W., Nahon, M.: Modeling dynamics of agile fixed-wing UAVs, for real-time applications. In: 2016 international conference on unmanned aircraft systems (ICUAS), pp 1303–1312 (2016)

  18. 18.

    Khan, W., Nahon, M.: Real-time modeling of agile fixed-wing UAV, aerodynamics. In: 2015 international conference on unmanned aircraft systems (ICUAS), pp 1188–1195 (2015)

  19. 19.

    Khan, W., Nahon, M.: Toward an accurate Physics-Based UAV thruster model. IEEE/ASME Trans. Mechatron. 18, 1269–1279 (2013)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  20. 20.

    Khan, W., Nahon, M.: Development and validation of a propeller slipstream model for unmanned aerial vehicles. J. Aircr. 52(6), 1985–1994 (2015)

    Article  Google Scholar 

  21. 21.

    3D Robotics, Accessed 8 Feb 2018

  22. 22.

    Bulka, E., Nahon, M.: Autonomous fixed-wing aerobatics: from theory to flight. In: Accepted to 2018 IEEE international conference of robotics and automation (ICRA) (2018)

  23. 23.

    Environment and Climate Change Canada, Hourly Data Report for September 12, 2017, Accessed 8 Feb 2018

Download references


A short version of this paper was presented in ICUAS 2017 [16]. The authors thank Michael Verrecchia for flight testing assistance and Waqas Khan for providing the agile aircraft dynamics model.

Author information



Corresponding author

Correspondence to Eitan Bulka.

Electronic supplementary material

Below is the link to the electronic supplementary material.

(MP4 65.1 MB)



Table 1 Aircraft properties
Table 2 Controller gains

Rights and permissions

Reprints and Permissions

About this article

Verify currency and authenticity via CrossMark

Cite this article

Bulka, E., Nahon, M. Automatic Control for Aerobatic Maneuvering of Agile Fixed-Wing UAVs. J Intell Robot Syst 93, 85–100 (2019).

Download citation


  • Control architectures
  • Agile Fixed-Wing UAVs
  • Aerobatics
  • Unmanned aerial vehicles