American consumers have been waiting for a viable drone delivery system for several years now. It all began when Jeff Bezos announced that Amazon would one day provide its customers with deliveries in 30 minutes or less with a drone to door delivery. When he made this claim, it was met with some skepticism. Earlier this month Amazon was finally granted permission from the FAA to begin drone delivery trials in minimally populated communities. What was perhaps most surprising was the fact that several other companies had been granted permission to begin drone deliveries more than a year before Amazon.
For quite some time now, drones have been used to make medical deliveries in the US, Europe, and Africa. In Australia and New Zealand drones have been delivering small packages from eateries, boutiques, and shops directly to customer’s homes. A little less than a year ago, Google’s Wing partnered up with Wallgreens in Christiansburg, Virginia to deliver prescription and over the counter medications along with other small pharmacy needs directly to someone’s front door with a drone. Now, in response to COVID-19 quarantine measures, drone deliveries have become even more popular.
Drone deliveries for people in quarantine first made the news in February, in the early stages of the pandemic. Jan and Dave Binskin from Queensland, Australia were two of the 2,666 guests quarantined aboard the Diamond Princess cruise ship off the coast of Japan. Trying to stay positive they ordered a case of wine to be delivered by drone directly to their room on the ship. Kevin Procopio of Saugus, Massachusetts used his drone to deliver a box of donuts to his grandchildren to cheer them up while in quarantine. Ansley Pena from Boston, Massachusetts also got a special drone delivery when Curry College used one to tell her she was the recipient of a full scholarship.
It wasn’t long until restaurants and grocery stores throughout the United States were finding ways to deliver items to people under state-mandated quarantines. Drones were being used to deliver medications, take out meals, basic groceries, and of course, toilet paper. Clearly the logistical safety concerns of drone deliveries have been met and the systems are working. There will always be room for improvement, and that is why a team of researchers from Japan has been looking into ways to streamline and speed up the drone delivery process.
At the Ishikawa Group Laboratory of the University of Tokyo, Satoshi Tanaka, and Taku Senoo, under the leadership of Masatoshi Ishikawa have been studying scenarios for high speed, non-stop parcel handover to a drone. They wanted to find a way to shave off minutes in drone delivery times. For deliveries to be successful, drones need to be able to safely and steadily release a package so the team knew they would not be speeding up that part of the delivery cycle. But what if they could speed up the process of loading a drone up with a parcel to be delivered? Their concept is to enable the drone to automatically grasp a parcel without having to pause in flight or be handled by a human.
In their test, a brown paper bag is set upon a robotic platform that senses and moves into a position to allow a drone to swoop by and hook the straps of the bag onto an arm hanging off the bottom of the drone. As described by the research team, “For the handover task, we developed a novel tracking system with high-speed, multi-camera vision using cameras with different frame rates. Through sensor fusion, the proposed system overcomes the problem associated with tracking far away objects by using high-speed cameras with short exposure times. The proposed system demonstrates that it is feasible to combine both high-speed object tracking (1000 fps) and distant object tracking.” In a matter of seconds, the drone flies towards the package, while the camera sensors instantly move the platform so the drone can grab the bag without ever slowing down.
The old saying “time is money” is ever true when it comes to saving logistics and delivery companies on their bottom line. The longer it takes to deliver a package, the more money it costs the retailer. That is part of the reason Amazon has vowed to have 30 minute or less drone deliveries. By making these rapid deliveries they save money and bring in more customers. With a system like the one developed at the Ishikawa lab, Amazon would definitely be able to deliver on that promise.