Technology

Fixed-wing drones and small package delivery

Fixed-wing drones

Long-range and endurance package delivery systems have the potential to become part of the mainstream postal systems in the future. This project investigates a novel method of using a long tether and a medium fixed-wing drone to deliver multiple packages at various weights.

The system is envisaged to be safer, more economical and practical over common single package delivery systems utilising drones. The need for such a system is evident as drones are becoming useful and influential in their use cases.

Package delivery via drone is under development and showing strong growth globally. This PhD project will look at a system that will display various advantageous and demonstrate usefulness in not only the mainstream delivery system but to critical humanitarian delivery where rapid deployment of heavy supplies can be delivered and retrieved using a highly efficient drone capable of travelling vast distances.

A demonstrator of the full system will be the ultimate goal of the research.

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Participant

Project background

Current efforts around package delivery by drone have shown significant development. However, the safety implications and governing regulations have not been fully developed to allow a system to integrate into society. This is due to the levels of risk that current systems have inherently and thus do not fall within the aviation risk standard applied to all flying aircraft.

The majority of this research effort focuses on a short-range, one-parcel delivery model, and use of a multi-rotor drone systems. There has been research which directly relates the package delivery system to environmental gains for full scale commercial delivery application. Multi-rotor drones are relatively inexpensive and have the ability to hover and land in small areas. Their flight capability has made them popular for photography and videography applications.

This PhD project focuses on a long-range, multi-parcel delivery system, conducted by a fixed-wing unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV). This type of delivery model has the capacity to become a safer and more acceptable introduction into drone parcel delivery. The benefit of a fixed-wing UAV is its capacity to hold much greater payloads and travel for extended ranges relative to a common multirotor system. While several systems have used a fixed-wing drone to deliver parcels in the past, they have predominantly been single parcel deliveries, normally with a parachute dropping system.

This conceptualised multi-parcel delivery system requires a package to be lowered to the ground via a tether while the aircraft is in loitering flight. Such a system has been used previously at larger scale and relies on a fixed-wing aircraft to fly above the target landing area while the tether is deployed. The package is attached to the end of the tether. As the tether is released and its length increases, a helix formation of the tether forms in which allows a nodal profile. With correct system conditions (loiter speed and tether length) the package can remain geostationary. This has been demonstrated in previous research.

The business case and emission profile of this tethered package delivery system are promising. The return of investment is short and requires implementation with a relatively low cost. One of the shortcomings of the system is the predicted large landing area to account for the package landing uncertainty due to adverse environmental conditions. Advancements in technology should allow an augmentation system to stabilise the package while increasing target accuracy.

The plan of this research is to have a working demonstrator to document the real application of such a novel parcel delivery system. The operational effectiveness of the system will be assessed through representative flight trials, while the investigation of how this system would integrate into the common delivery system will show viability and cost effectiveness if applied in optimal delivery scenarios.

Project objectives

The objectives of the project are to:

  1. Uncover the appropriate business model of the tethered delivery system and model its business model in representative delivery missions.
  2. Develop a module multi-parcel delivery system to retrofit onto a fixed wing unmanned aerial system.
  3. Operationally test the system in a series of outdoor flight experiments to prove the operational viability and workings of the system.

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