A team of roboticists at the University of Tokyo have developed a high-speed system for handing off a parcel to an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV), with neither the primary delivery vehicle nor the UAV having to stop moving.
"Although physical distribution research using unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) has garnered increasing interest, the task of automatically loading a parcel onto a UAV remains inadequately researched," researcher Satoshi Tanaka and colleagues explain in the abstract to their paper. "In this study, after evaluating previous research related to UAV loading, we propose a system that can achieve non-stop handover of a parcel to an airborne UAV and aid in the design of an automatic UAV delivery system.
"To evaluate the efficiency of our proposed system for introduction to an actual delivery system, we construct a mathematical model for UAV delivery. The model simulation results show that the proposed system can achieve a maximum improvement of 65% in the number of parcels delivered per day, and that non-stop handover has a greater effect on reducing the cost of the system when the average delivery distance is short."
The system works through a combination of two or more high-speed cameras for object tracking and an additional camera for tracking the position of the airborne UAV alongside a robot built from two linear actuators and a platform for the payload. The UAV flies in, the camera system tracks both its location and the location of the package, and adjusts the platform so that the package can be hooked by the UAV — transferring it from the primary delivery vehicle to the still-moving UAV in a third of a second. A proposed extension to the system, replacing the simple two-direction platform with a six-axis robot arm, could improve that still further.
"Realistically, the immediate benefit of a system like this might not be very significant, simply because existing drone delivery services for consumers (all of which are very much in the prototype stage) have not yet reached a system saturation point where minutes or seconds really matter all that much," says IEEE Spectrum's Even Ackerman in an analysis of the team's work. "And having battery life measured in a few tens of minutes means that you’ll need to stop the drone to swap batteries anyway. As batteries get better, though, and as new techniques circumvent their shortcomings, package handoffs like these could find a useful place in a drone-delivery system."
The paper has been published as part of the proceedings of the 2019 IEEE Intelligent Transportation Systems Conference (ITSC), under closed-access terms.