A team of Virginia Tech engineering graduates has built a system of autonomous drones to perform indoor package delivery. Sponsored by Lockheed Martin, these unmanned aerial vehicles will utilise free airspace in large factories with crowded floors to more efficiently deliver parts.
‘These drones are at the cutting edge of research and development,’ said Christopher Graveline, part of the team of ten classmates from four engineering majors in the Interdisciplinary Senior Design Program at Virginia Tech.
Throughout the project, the team took advantage of the resources available in the university’s Prototyping and Fusion studios. ‘When our drones break, the Prototyping Studio has all the tools we need, such as soldering irons and hand tools, to perform quick repairs,’ said Graveline.
Max Ofsa, the Prototyping Studio manager, guided the team as needed throughout the project. ‘Max just so happened to have completed a drone project during his undergrad, and he has been a fountain of knowledge, as well as kindly letting us borrow RC transmitters and batteries for testing,’ said Graveline.
The Fusion Studio was also a game-changer for the team, providing a centralised place for the students to meet and collaborate. ‘You can find us there pretty much every day of the week,’ said Graveline.
The team particularly valued the expertise of Sara Sweeney Bear, the manager of the Fusion Studio. ‘Sara is a great communicator and comes from a non-engineering background, so her perspective is crucial when running through our presentations with her,’ said Graveline.
Because the project pushed the boundaries of the technology-readiness level, team members replied on engineering calculations, simulation and good, old trial and error to navigate the challenges they faced throughout the year. ‘If we listed all the challenges we encountered throughout this project, this article would be far too long for anyone to read,’ said Graveline.
One surprise the team discovered was the level of vibration created by the drones during take-off. ‘It made it more difficult than expected to pick up the boxes, which delayed our project,’ said Graveline. ‘Bigger propellers were able to fix that issue.’
Flying indoors came with its own set of challenges. Team members solved these problems with a one-of-a-kind magnetic pick-up and drop-off mechanism that they were told couldn’t be done. ‘This is something that we are particularly proud of, and we proved our class professors wrong when they worked successfully,’ said Graveline.
Graveline said the team has loved being a part of the Interdisciplinary Senior Design Program. ‘We learned so much and really benefited from the interactions with Professors Andrea L’Afflitto, Robin Queen and David Gray, along with the excellent library expertise, guidance, tools and resources,’ said Graveline.
According to Graveline, it has been exhilarating working on a project that is at the cutting edge of the industry. “Much of what we’re trying to do is not currently available on the market and developing a totally new product has been an incredible experience,’ he said. ‘This product has the potential to create a new market for indoor drone delivery systems that doesn’t yet exist.’