Drone Tech Digest - March 2017

Landing drones

BMT Defence Services and the University of Bristol have been developing a morphing wing design for use on drones. By moving the wings in a backward and forward motion they can create a pitching movement, and tips of wings twisting can cause the aircraft to roll. Despite the increased agility this gives the drone the calculations of factors such as wind, speed, angle etc are difficult for a human to quickly process. So, BMT and Bristol developed an AI system built on reinforcement learning, and positively reinforced the behaviour of landing on a particular spot on a field during trials. After 5,000 repetitions the drone had learnt to take off and land without a runway. 
Amazon is also looking into drone landing technologies. In its latest patent the company revealed a system that could help a drone land on uneven surfaces. It would use a landing arm and depth sensors to determine the correct placement and length of the other legs of the drone. 

Kelp growing drones

Marine BioEnergy showcased a potential way to harvest renewable energy from the sea – kelp farms. The idea is to use fleets of UAVs (underwater autonomous vehicles) to form the corners of a quilt-like structure of lines which can be used to grow kelp on. The concrete drones will lower the kelp farms at night for it to reach water where nutrients are rich and will raise it during the day to get sunlight for photosynthesis. The lowering and raising would be controlled by a network of buoys that the drone could inflate or deflate as needed. Propulsion would be provided through solar power or wave energy harvesters, but the company sees the farms riding the natural ocean currents as the main source of movement. Once the kelp reached maturity it could be brought into a refinery vessel where it would be turned into biofuel. Marine BioEnergy claims that the entire energy needs of the US could be provided with 30 Utah size kelp farms. The company will be carrying out tests and pilot studies of the system over the next 2.5 years in a controlled environment. 

Drones on Mars?

A video recently tweeted on NASA’s Twitter account shows the Mars Flyer, an aerial drone for use on the red planet. Exploring Mars with rovers is a slow process, with an average speed of ten miles per four and a half years. Using aerial drones could help speed the process and that is what NASA’s Langley Centre has been considering. The drones are designed to take off and land vertically, be rechargeable and autonomous while carrying mapping equipment and remote sensors. The rover would act as a base station for the drone. Prototypes are currently being tested in low pressure chambers at Langley. 

Delivery drones

JD.com, a Chinese e-commerce company, plans to set up 150 drone air bases in Sichuan, a province in China’s southwest, over the next three years. The company further hopes that this is just the initial step towards having a 24-hour nationwide delivery drone distribution network within five years. JD.com’s drones are capable of carrying 50 kilograms of goods. 
Domino’s in Europe is using Starship’s drones to deliver pizzas to customers within a one mile radius of its stores in German and Dutch cities. Starship’s wheeled autonomous delivery drones are capable of carrying up to 20 pounds of food per delivery, which is equivalent to about eight pizzas. 
Advanced Tactics, a US research and development company, announced its Panther sUAS Air/Ground Robot has delivered its first parcel. As per the name, the drone is able to fly - having Vertical Take-Off and Landing (VTOL) abilities - and after landing can drive. The Panther can carry a payload of up to 7 lb (3.1 kg) and uses autonomous waypoint navigation. The drone can be bought with optional extras such as a first-person video kit, amphibious boat hull with steerable motor and a larger battery pack. The two-wheeled version is available to buy for USD2995 and the four-wheeled version for USD3195. 

Walmart drones

Walmart, an American multinational supermarket chain, has filed a patent for a system whereby drones will be sent to pick up items from an instore location and return it to the delivery area within the store. The patent envisions a future where an intelligent drone could help customers find or collect items within the store. The drones will be separated from people in the store by flying in designated safe zones, with a computer overseeing the drones’ activities.

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