Business

MIT students figure out how to make delivery-by-drone a reality

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Image Credit: AK Rockefellar via Flickr

The same day that Amazon announced a trial run of its delivery by drone service in India, a couple of MIT researchers released a new study that shows how to keep delivery drones running efficiently — and it’s funded by Boeing.

A team of researchers have developed what is essentially a health kit for drones, to help avoid in-flight failures and breakdowns. The first algorithm allows an in-flight drone to monitor fuel level and the condition of parts like propellers and cameras, and to make proactive decisions. If the fuel level is low, for example, a drone with MIT’s algorithms can anticipate the need for fuel and go to a station.

Second, the researchers have developed an offline capability where a drone can map future locations before takeoff. The routing mechanism makes sure to map an obstacle-free trajectory.

Researchers found that drones equipped with MIT’s algorithms had fewer failures than drones without any sort of health-monitoring features. “With something like package delivery, which needs to be done persistently over hours, you need to take into account the health of the system,” Ali-akbar Agha-mohammadi, a postdoc in MIT’s Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics, said in a press release. “Interestingly, in our simulations, we found that, even in harsh environments, out of 100 drones, we only had a few failures.”

A number of companies and individuals have been toying with drone delivery systems for a few years now. For example, Matternet, a startup based in Menlo Park, Calif., has been working on a drone delivery service for medical supplies since 2011. Amazon, at the end of 2013, was the first major corporation to announce plans for a delivery-by-drone service. But no one has come out with a viable drone service just yet, partially due to FAA restrictions and partially because the proper technology hasn’t been fully developed.

Boeing, for its part, has been quietly building up its unmanned aerial vehicle offering. Most of its current drones are developed by subsidiary Insitu, a smaller company Boeing bought up in 2008. Most of its drones have focused on intelligence gathering rather than combat, and in recent years the company has created a drone that sounds like the title to a Bond flick: The Phantom Eye. The high altitude hydrogen powered UAV can fly for four days without landing. The company is currently trying to get the vehicle to stay in flight for 10 days, which would trump other competitors in the field.

However, Boeing still has plenty of room to expand its drone lineup, and the market for military and commercial drones is far from saturated. It only makes sense the company would be looking to invest in technologies that would help it get a leg up on the competition and possibly develop something worth offering to companies looking to develop Amazon-like drone delivery services.

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