Business

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

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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15 comments
Last Curmudgeon
Last Curmudgeon

just a couple notes.  i don't think the faa has approved anything, and may not.  and, any drone flying over populated areas, or even any area the public can get to, will be targeted.  like putting money on the sidewalk and expecting it to be there the next day.   but, dream on.

Keith Lembke
Keith Lembke

The technology already exists where large UAS'could take over the retail air delivery business for such companies such as FEDEX or DHL. Between robotics, the server induced behavior models already displayed by many universities throughout the world, it is right around the corner. The issue becomes one of infrastructure and arbitrated solutions by all actors ( band width, airspace deconfliction with non- participating aircraft, internal security of the system, and external security of the system )- all challenges that can also be solved. Sen Baucus' sponsored law to set up six areas in the US for industry to research the future of UAVs is intended to be places industry collaborates with government to isolate and fix each one of those challenges. The challenge is to find the right people with a comprehensive enough vision to lead the process. It takes more the universities and big companies to do this - it takes the inclusion of entrepreneurs to do this - people the big companies are excluding by hiring formal "experts" they know about or depending on program management to lead the process. This is a world the US could lead quickly but must systemically turn it over to the visionaries, not the retired Air Force generals working for huge companies or the intellectual elite.

Jamil Voss
Jamil Voss

This is cool. I remember reading that Amazon had to discontinue their drone delivery program due to legislative restrictions on that type of thing.

Tom Dillon
Tom Dillon

I am so looking forward to sweet shooting with prizes

Redouane Red
Redouane Red

Amazon uses this delievery mod, but not now

Nigel Pepper
Nigel Pepper

How long until someone hacks the drone telemetry/nav software and creates 'secret santa' drones!

hsh sheehy
hsh sheehy

We'll have autonomous segway-like drones before we have flying drones. More weight capacity, easier to sign for a document, longer "loiter" time for the door to be answered, etc., etc., etc., etc., etc..

Barry Hurd
Barry Hurd

While I love the idea, a few drone failures in a test of 100 is pretty scary. They haven't figured out how to make it a reality, simply proven that drones are highly complicated mechanical and technical marvels that are interacting with rapidly changing environments.


Realistically the number of failures would have to be in the 1 to 100,000 range before having any merit. If UPS, Fedex, or Amazon delivered 1000 packages a day, even a 1 in 100,000 rate could possibly mean a few dozen serious accidents and/or deaths every year. 

Given that services could do 1000 deliveries per state (or per city) per day, an acceptable number of failures would have to be almost zero.

Freddy Moldt
Freddy Moldt

William H. Duke Jr. Remember when old guy professor Samli predicted we'd be using missiles to deliver packages

Fayez Bayzid
Fayez Bayzid

I am sure the Drone Jacker's are already thinking of hacking and flying the drone straight to their bank account