A charging solution for delivery drones: Take after our feathered friends?

June 23, 2014 by Adam Conner-Simons, Massachusetts Institute of Technology
A charging solution for delivery drones: Take after our feathered friends?
A team of CSAIL researchers designed a single-motor glider (pictured here) that can perch on power lines like a bird.

Amazon's plan to unleash a wave of "delivery drones" has occasionally been criticized as a pie-in-the-sky idea (literally, if they start shipping baked goods).

One limitation is that Amazon's devices currently only store enough energy to fly within 10 miles of a fulfillment center. But researchers from MIT's Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Lab (CSAIL) say that they have a solution—and it's thanks to pigeons.

In a new paper, CSAIL researchers developed a lightweight (UAV) that can perch on a power line like a bird. This opens up the possibility for UAVs to recharge their batteries using the magnetic fields emitted by power lines.

The CSAIL team's single-motor glider has a complex control system that automatically directs it to slow down, tip its wings, and hook onto a line, even in moderate wind conditions. Where past versions required wall-mounted cameras and a separate computer, CSAIL's latest iteration has on-board and electronics that can plan and execute moves in real-time.

PhD student Joe Moore, who wrote the paper with former PhD student Rick Cory and Russ Tedrake, an associate professor of electrical engineering and computer science, for the summer issue of Bioinspiration and Biomimetics, says that when his team was first thinking about how to improve UAV agility, they thought it'd be helpful to take cues from birds.

They spent hours researching pigeons and eagles' abilities to stall—a complex phenomenon that involves flaring their wings, angling their bodies, maintaining high velocity, and accurately judging the trajectory needed to perch.

Creating a computer model to execute a stall maneuver has typically been computationally difficult. As described in a 2010 MIT News article, the angles needed to pull it off result in airflow over the wings that is difficult to predict, which is why engineers have designed conventional planes to land the way they do—the long descent, the gradual braking, and the mile-long runway.

"It's challenging to design a control system that can slow down a fixed-wing aircraft enough to land on a perch," Moore says. "Our strategy accomplishes this and can do so in outdoor environments using only on-board sensors."

Explore further: A plane that lands like a bird (w/ Video)

More information: The paper, "Robust Post-Stall Perching with a Simple Fixed-Wing Glider using LQR-Trees" is available online: groups.csail.mit.edu/robotics- … _papers/Moore14a.pdf

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3 / 5 (2) Jun 23, 2014
One limitation is that Amazon's devices currently only store enough energy to fly within 10 miles of a fulfillment center.
Okay, off topic, but.. "fulfillment center"??? What's wrong with calling it what it is, which is a distribution center? Why does Amazon want to control the paradigm of logistics by changing the terminology? Isn't that grossly ego-centric? Computer programmers and applications developers run into this sort of thing all the time. Procedures and functions are now called classes and methods, etc. This sort of thing is counter-productive to our continued understanding of how things work, or should work. It's bulls**t.
1 / 5 (1) Jun 23, 2014
"Take after our feathered friends?"

Of course - drones could catch bugs and combust them for fuel. Win-win-again. Or they could even eat birds like starlings and geese which are a pain.
not rated yet Jun 23, 2014
@baudrunner: Of course it's bullshit - it's marketing. If you make something sound especially nice ("fulfillment" is a more warm and fuzzy word than "distribution"), on average people will have more positive attitudes towards your service and be slightly more inclined to use it.

Sure, it's a redundant term that doesn't need to exist. But using it helps Amazon, so they use it.
not rated yet Jun 24, 2014
I'm so sure the power companies will have no problem with drones stealing power.

Google is a joke. Just like the self-driving car hysteria going around now. What they don't tell you (because they may not have figured it out?) is that self-driving cars will not work reliably without some sort of support infra-structure to every single road they may travel on.

I think AI is at least 50 years from being smart enough to make the decisions drivers make every second while driving. We use so many cues to find a path and stay on it in so many places where an AI would get confused we will see atomic cars before self-driving cars are permitted to run loose. They might have an easier time in a city but on country roads there are millions of places and situations where an AI will not know reliably what to do.

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