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VertiKUL UAV Explores Practicalities of Delivery Drones

Autonomous landings, cargo management, and range: this drone is trying to do it all

2 min read
VertiKUL UAV Explores Practicalities of Delivery Drones
Autonomous landings, cargo management, and range: this drone is trying to do it all.
Photo: KU Leuven

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 ofit isregulatory, 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 ]

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The Bionic-Hand Arms Race

The prosthetics industry is too focused on high-tech limbs that are complicated, costly, and often impractical

12 min read
A photograph of a young woman with brown eyes and neck length hair dyed rose gold sits at a white table. In one hand she holds a carbon fiber robotic arm and hand. Her other arm ends near her elbow. Her short sleeve shirt has a pattern on it of illustrated hands.

The author, Britt Young, holding her Ottobock bebionic bionic arm.

Gabriela Hasbun. Makeup: Maria Nguyen for MAC cosmetics; Hair: Joan Laqui for Living Proof

In Jules Verne’s 1865 novel From the Earth to the Moon, members of the fictitious Baltimore Gun Club, all disabled Civil War veterans, restlessly search for a new enemy to conquer. They had spent the war innovating new, deadlier weaponry. By the war’s end, with “not quite one arm between four persons, and exactly two legs between six,” these self-taught amputee-weaponsmiths decide to repurpose their skills toward a new projectile: a rocket ship.

The story of the Baltimore Gun Club propelling themselves to the moon is about the extraordinary masculine power of the veteran, who doesn’t simply “overcome” his disability; he derives power and ambition from it. Their “crutches, wooden legs, artificial arms, steel hooks, caoutchouc [rubber] jaws, silver craniums [and] platinum noses” don’t play leading roles in their personalities—they are merely tools on their bodies. These piecemeal men are unlikely crusaders of invention with an even more unlikely mission. And yet who better to design the next great leap in technology than men remade by technology themselves?

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