Delivery Drones Hitching Buses Could Reach Distances Four Times the Normal Range: Study
Thu, April 22, 2021

Delivery Drones Hitching Buses Could Reach Distances Four Times the Normal Range: Study


Delivery drones are a new way to bring goods to customers. However, the service can only cover a limited distance, compared to traditional delivery systems. So, a computer science expert suggests combining drones and ground-based vehicles to make e-commerce friendly to traffic.

The framework for combining ground-based transport and drone delivery was developed by researchers at Stanford University, a private research university in the US. The framework would make e-commerce, specifically the delivery service, more convenient to customers and more friendly to traffic. Moreover, the augmentation of drone delivery from ground-based transport could increase the maximum distance of drones. Their findings were presented at the IEEE International Conference on Robotics and Automation.

The Benefits and Drawbacks of Drone Delivery

When drone technology significantly improved, it upgraded the delivery system of various companies. The technology enabled the transportation of goods using a lightweight, unmanned medium: a drone. Because of their engine and size, drones can be a preferred delivery medium of light packages within a particular area. The packages are expected to be delivered unhindered since drones avoid ground traffic.

According to Fehr and Peers, a transportation consulting firm, drones for delivery purposes typically feature four to eight propellers and rechargeable batteries to handle light packages. These drones may be operated automatically or remotely by a person. Either way, drone delivery permits multiple drones transporting packages to several destinations at once. A team simply needs to oversee if the drones are performing normally.

Potential benefits of drone delivery include the reduction in road congestion, increase in safety, decrease in greenhouse gas emissions, better route flexibility, and cut in maintenance costs. Due to flying capabilities, drones do not add to the never-ending traffic congestion. Drones are also unlikely to disrupt train operations as long as their programming includes railroad systems. And because they are operated by batteries, they do not emit smoke like traditional vehicles.

Unfortunately, the technology is still experiencing some issues that have led to limitations of drone delivery. The most impactful limitation is the restriction on package weights. Drones can only carry a certain amount of weight to fly and propel at an optimal speed. The next one is the limited battery capacity, which greatly affects how far a drone can travel. Another issue is the requirement of collision avoidance systems, especially if drones are to be used in busy areas.



The Possible Solution for Drone Delivery Limitations

At Stanford, a computer science expert presented a solution to some of the limitations in drone delivery deployment and expansion. Their solution is the combination of drone delivery and ground-based transports like buses. Instead of completely relying on flight systems, drones could use buses to conserve power and reach greater distances. Through augmentation schemes, drones would be able to deliver in areas never been serviced before.

"Delivery drones are the future. By using ground transit judiciously, drones have the potential to provide safe, clean, and cost-effective transport," said Mykel Kochenderfer, an author of the study and associate professor of aeronautics and astronautics at Stanford.

Shushman Choudhury, the first author of the study and Ph.D. student in computer science, described the whole concept of allowing delivery drones to hitch a ride on buses. The idea inspired the entire team and resulted in the framework developed by Kochenderfer and Marco Pavone, an author of the study as well. Once the framework was optimized for pilot tests, researchers initiated their experiments to determine if drones hitching buses would do more, compared to drones delivering packages as normal.

Alone, drones are hampered by a limited range no matter how promising the technology is. Ground delivery vehicles, like trucks, are also hampered because they can contribute to ground traffic and road accidents. Simulations were performed on two real-world public bus networks and corresponding delivery areas in San Francisco and the Washington DC, Metropolitan Area. The former had an area coverage of 150 square kilometers, while the latter had a coverage of 400 square kilometers.

Before the simulations, analyses highlighted the major problems of combining bus networks and drone delivery. The three most crucial issues were large bus networks, constraints between drones, and allocation in the delivery routes. The creation of routes in large networks could spawn adverse outcomes, particularly in time-dependent bus networks. In terms of constraints between drones, drones would be subject to flight range limitation and problematic interactions among drones taking a single bus. And lastly, the misallocation of drones in deliveries and dispatch would induce delays in one or multiple parts of the service.



Fortunately, researchers found that minimizing the maximum delivery time or the makespans of drones could fix those problems. Simulations with algorithms designed to optimize the integrated functions of drone delivery and bus networks revealed improvements. There were 4,192 stops in San Francisco and 7,608 in Washington DC. With the algorithms, 200 drones could accomplish 5,000 packages in a makespan of fewer than two hours. The simulations also expressed a huge impact on the distance range: the drones could reach almost four times its normal range.

According to Statista, commercial drones used in delivery, mapping, and rescue operations had been being utilized before the pandemic struck nations. In 2018, the worldwide market volume of commercial drones was 246,000 units worth $1.1 billion. That volume was greater than 159,000 units worth of $0.8 billion in 2017, and 110,000 units worth $0.6 billion in 2016. The growth of that market had been forecasted to reach 634,000 units worth $2.4 billion in 2020. Though, the growth might be low due to the disrupted international supply lines and labor force.

Grocery delivery would be one of the best applications of drone delivery service. With social distancing and self-quarantine recommendations, many people might consider going for drone delivery to avoid catching COVID-19 in public. In a survey conducted from April 8 to April 15, 2020, in 9,951 respondents in the US, 19% of adults aged 18 to 24 years, 18% of aged 25 to 34 years, 36% of aged 35 to 54 years, and 27% of aged 55 years and older used grocery delivery. These percentages showed the potential for drone delivery among older adults.

The integration of bus networks in drone delivery has not yet been tested using real drones. The framework demonstrated what is likely to happen once a system is deployed. Still, the integration can be beneficial during this pandemic and to the environment. Drone delivery may help cut off emissions generated by dedicated delivery trucks and similar vehicles.