Delivery drones closer to reality with self monitoring quadcopters

With the prospect of delivery drones firmly on the horizon, the challenges of developing reliable quadcopters for such a service are being tackled.

One of the biggest issues is the variety of weather conditions that a drone might face when making a delivery. Currently sending out a drone in harsh weather would be a matter of hoping for the best, but researchers at Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) believe they have developed a solution.

The team have created an algorithm that enables a drone to keep an eye on its own “health” while in flight and take action as necessary.

The drone can monitor its fuel levels, and watch out for damage to its propellers, cameras and sensors.  If a problem is found, the drone can take an alternative route that includes a charging station, or select another action to minimise potential damage.

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Such a self-monitoring system is key to the commercial viability of drone delivery, because it will help to ensure packages actually arrive at their intended destination.

“With something like package delivery, which needs to be done persistently over hours, you need to take into account the health of the system,” explained Ali-akbar Agha-mohammadi, an MIT Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics postdoc.

The researchers tested the technology to determine if it could impact on the rate of delivery success, with impressive results.

“Interestingly, in our simulations, we found that, even in harsh environments, out of 100 drones, we only had a few failures,” said Agha-mohammadi.

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However, a typical delivery drone would be likely to make several stops at different addresses while out and about, creating potential issues that could hinder the success of deliveries.

To resolve this, the researchers also developed a route-planning system that will determine the most efficient path to take to conserve fuel and avoid potential danger spots.

This is determined by considering all the possible options, and determining potential risks from different environments.

“Imagine a huge tree of possibilities, and a large chunk of leaves collapses to one leaf, and you end up with maybe 10 leaves instead of a million leaves,”said  Agha-mohammadi.

“Then you can … let this run offline for say, half an hour, and map a large environment, and accurately predict the collision and failure probabilities on different routes.”

This could have a dramatic effect on the efficiency of drone deliveries, and could ultimately be very important to their success as a commercial offering.

There is much more to be done before drones can be used for delivery, however the research team, which is partly funded by Boeing, plans to progress to working with delivery packages, which would be affixed to drones using custom electromagnets.

“We believe in the near future, in a lab setting, we can show what we’re gaining with this framework by delivering as many packages as we can while preserving health,” said Agha-mohammadi.

“Not only the drone, but the package might be important, and if you fail, it could be a big loss.”

Perhaps before long we really will be able to receive Amazon deliveries by drone.

Droning on: Flying inspection robots make building assessments a breeze

From farming to security, drones are being developed for almost every application imaginable, and now, thanks to team in Germany, building renovation is no different.

In much of Europe, and in Germany in particular, there is high demand for renovation of buildings that have taken damage or wear due to age or environmental exposure, which requires detailed inspections of their exterior.

Normally this is a lengthy process, particularly when large outside sections such as wide façades need to be accessed. It also can be hampered by errors: inspections are largely done by eye and marked on 2D paper maps.

However, with the development of a custom octocopter, this could soon change.

A creation of Christian Eschmann, a researcher at the Fraunhofer Institute for Non-Destructive Testing IZFP in Saarbrücken, Germany, the “flying inspection robots” are equipped with eight rotors to allow them to reach as high as 11 storeys.

octocopter

The octocopter is equipped to scan masonry for cracks, chips or structural defects from a distance of 2 metres. A high-definition digital camera also snaps detailed images of the building, with around 1,200 images generated in a 15 minute flight, providing a clear picture of the complete structure.

Additional sensors measure wind speeds and ensure the octocopter remains stable, preventing crashes or collisions with the building.

Inspections of tall or unusually shaped buildings can be immensely time consuming, and even require the use of professional abseilers, cranes, helicopters or scaffolding, but Eschmann believes this drone approach will be far quicker and easier.

“To inspect their condition and prevent hazards to people, a lot of effort still has to be devoted to buildings that are difficult to access,” he said.

“For a 20 by 80 meter wide façade, a test engineer needs about two to three days. Our octocopter needs three to four hours for this.”

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At present the octocopter only functions as a remote-control vehicle, but Eschmann and his team are looking to make the technology autonomous, through the development of specialist navigation sensors.

These sensors will follow a system that Eschmann compared to “flying on rails”; they will be able to move from one side of the building to the other, floor-by-floor, allowing for a systematic assessment of the whole building.

Given the challenges and time involved in traditional building inspections, the technology is likely to prove highly popular, however Eschmann was keen to stress that the octocopter would be a support tool, rather a technology destined to take jobs.

“Our micro-airplane is no substitute for experts or a close-up inspection,” he said.


Featured image courtesy of Uwe Bellhäuser via Fraunhofer. Body image 2 courtesy of Leo Reynolds.