Published: March 23, 2022 | Updated: March 24, 2022

Engine company goes from model aircraft to the world’s most advanced drones in 25 years

Eric Hill, Co-Founder & Chief Executive, RCV Engines, with one of the company’s products. Picture: Dorset Biz News.
By Andrew Diprose, editor

It may be a small business tucked away on a Dorset industrial estate but its products – and innovative engine technology – are known and used across the globe.

RCV Engines Limited, which celebrates its 25th anniversary this week, began life producing rotary valve internal combustion engines for model aircraft.

Co-founded by Eric Hill and Keith Lawes, the Ferndown-based company has long since moved into new business areas, specifically the Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) or drone market.

Its four-stroke engines are now a key component of some of the world’s most advanced Small Unmanned Aircraft System (sUAS) for both commercial and military requirements.

The core technology is based around the novel rotary valve which has extensive patent cover in key global markets until 2038.

The key benefit is that, unlike other engine technologies, it operates equally well on gasoline or kerosene-based heavy fuels, an essential requirement for military or marine applications.

Compared to a two-stroke engine, an RCV equipped UAV can fly twice as long for the same fuel load.

Civilian uses for RCV’s engines include coastguard search and rescue, environmental research and pipeline surveillance in remote areas.

Its engines can operate in everything from high altitude to salt water conditions and dry arid deserts to lab conditions.

Only the fuel map requires modification as RCV’s combustion systems have proved to be adaptable and tolerant of environmental change.

They can even switch between fuel types with no power loss.

Such has been RCV’s cutting edge technology and reputation that it received around $2.7m over several years from the U.S. Department of Defense’s Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) to research and design engines for drones.

Today its engines can be found in long-range UAV such as the Sentinel Longreach 70 UAV, pictured left.

The small, unmanned helicopter is designed for long-range operation in a variety of conditions, including hostile climates and terrains as well as maritime environments.

Using RCV’s 70cc twin cylinder liquid cooled unit it has an airspeed of 70 knots, maximum endurance of eight hours, can carry up to ten litres of fuel and generates onboard power, allowing a wide range of sensors and equipment to be used.

Other applications for RCV’s engines include forest and garden equipment including handheld garden tools such as leaf blowers as well as portable generators and small two-wheel vehicles.

Eric, RCV’s Chief Executive, pictured with one of the company’s original engines and who describes himself as “having engineering in my blood”, said the UAV market was expected to see substantial growth over the coming years.

RCV has already successfully exported its engines to more than 50 countries as well as providing development and production engines to international customers and establishing licensing agreements.

Eric, 78, said: “We employ nine technicians and engineers and are comparatively small but our engines are known, and used, around the world.

“We continue to grow and, despite the pandemic, increased our customer base with sales in Europe, USA and the Far East.

“The UAV market is set to be an area for substantial growth over the coming years as both commercial and military requirements become more common.

“We’re in a very good position to make the most of these and other opportunities with plans to increase our capacity, expand our engine range and create a larger testing facility.”

In one of the latest developments, a RCV engine was used in the first successful drone flight for the RAF using an alternative to fossil fuel.

The four-metre UAV, powered by synthetic kerosene, was part of Project Vermeer, an international collaboration between the UK and America.

The new fuel was used in the RCV engine without requiring any mechanical changes – just a new fuel map.

RCV expected several days for testing but, in reality, it just worked as the fixed-wing drone successfully completed the 20-minute test flight in Wiltshire.

The trial was hailed by Jeremy Quin, Defence Procurement Minister, as “an exciting moment for the RAF and British industry.”