We’ve been skeptical about delivery drones ever since Amazon made it sound like delivery drones were 1.) easy and 2.) right around the corner. Realistically, there’s a huge amount of stuff that has to happen before delivery drones can work in practice; a lot of it is regulatory, but there are technical problems to be solved as well. Researchers at KU Leuven, in Belgium, have been working on some of these, including landing pads, cargo compartments, and range extension.
Take-offs and landings are probably going to be the trickiest part of this whole delivery drone business, and a landing pad is likely a necessity. These pads have optical patterns on them to enable precision visual landings, and arrays of LEDs light them up at night. Once the UAV gets close enough (GPS close), it can home in on the pad and make a touchdown.
Since the landing pads are, if everything goes well, the only points at which the UAV will interact with the ground, they need to provide all of the ground support that’s necessary for the vehicle to operate autonomously. I like the fact that the loading mechanism (and the UAV itself) completely protects the payload from inclement weather, although the roboticists who are developing this system (a group of graduate students at KU Leuven) are still working on getting it all to work well in wind.
The UAV itself can transition between vertical and horizontal flight, which addresses one of the big problems with rotorcraft: terrible terrible range. It’s great that quadcopters and other drones powered by rotors can do all that fancy hovering and stuff, but there’s a reason why we all get crammed into airplanes to fly anywhere: passive wings that generate lift without having to rapidly spin in circles are much more efficient.
We don’t have data from KU Leuven on how much more efficient the robot is, but we do know that it currently has a 30 kilometer range, and that it’s scary fast: “We did not yet lower the pitch up to an optimal angle of attack (about 7 degrees) because then it flies too fast out of view.” Awesome. When it’s vertical, though, those wings are probably a big part of the reason why the researchers are finding it difficult to control the robot when it’s windy. It’s a compromise, certainly, but a necessary one, since more range means fewer base stations and cheaper overall system.
The missing piece here is either a charging infrastructure or a way to swap batteries, but we’re confident that by the time these guys get their Ph.Ds, they’ll have that convincingly solved.
[ KU Leuven ]