Georgia Tech’s New Coordinated Drone Swarm Delivery System

We’ve written a lot about drone deliveries and their enormous potential to address the logistical “last mile problem” that many organizations face.

Due to the pandemic, some of the most recent drone delivery solutions to “take off” have been centered around the safe, timely delivery of a variety of essential goods such as COVID-19 test kits, groceries, and medicine. As exciting as these recent developments have been, most drone deliveries are limited to packages that weigh less than five pounds, and this limits the practicality of drone deliveries.

Why are drone deliveries typically limited to such small packages?

Heavier packages require larger drones, which can be expensive and unappealing to the public and regulators, due to many factors.

Those factors include the noise large drones emit, and the fact that the impact of a mishap is likely to be bigger for large drones than small ones.

The ability for drones to deliver large packages could transform the logistics sector, so there is a lot of interest in addressing the payload limitation. Of the solutions being explored, “swarm” technology is particularly promising.

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What’s swarm technology?

Swarm technology is an approach to coordination of multiple systems.

In the context of drones, swarm technology is when a large number of drones collectively exhibit self organizing behavior, moving cohesively as one unit and interacting with one another as needed, with minimal human intervention. 

Swarm systems tend to be powered by algorithms that draw from biological studies of swarm behavior of animals, especially birds, fish, and insects.

How would swarm technology enable drone deliveries of large packages?

There’s still a long way for the technology to go, but a recent project by a Georgia Institute of Technology research team gives a good idea of how it could work. 

Essentially, an adaptive control algorithm allows teams of small drones to collaboratively lift objects together the way that a group of ants might lift a piece of food or building material that is too big for one ant to lift alone.

What does the Georgia Tech project bring to the table?

Most swarm technology applications have centered around applications in the defense, agriculture, and public safety sectors.

In these applications, the drones tend to be flying in formations, but not necessarily connected, meaning that the drones will avoid collision or excessive redundancy of coverage, but do little else with one another. 

According to Jonathan Rogers, the Lockheed Martin Associate Professor of Avionics Integration in Georgia Tech’s Daniel Guggenheim School of Aerospace Engineering, in these cases, “the individual dynamics of a specific vehicle are not constrained by what the other vehicles are doing.”

Meanwhile, according to Rogers, in a delivery use-case, the drones are pulled in different directions by what the other vehicles connected to the package are doing, so coordination is much trickier.

To address this challenge, the Georgia Tech team has designed a system where drones autonomously connect to a docking structure attached to a package.  A centralized computer system monitors each of the drones lifting a package, enabling them to share information with one another about their location and the thrust being provided by their motors.

The control system issues coordinated commands to each drone, enabling collective navigation and delivery with minimal human involvement.

How much can the Georgia tech system lift?

For testing purposes, the Georgia tech team is using four drones to collaboratively carry a 2′ x 2′ x 2′ package weighing 12 pounds.

However, the control algorithm isn’t limited to four vehicles in theory, the only limit to the amount of drones used would be how many of them you could fit around the package.

What’s next?

The Georgia Tech research team has submitted a paper on their system to The Journal of Aircraft.

While this is an exciting first step, there are several technical and regulatory matters that need to be further explored and addressed before the technology can be commercialized.

First, a better understanding is needed of the redundancies and safety features of the Georgia Tech delivery system. Theoretically, if one of the drones fails, the central control system should be able to direct others to pick up the load, just as your brain might lead you to catch your phone with one hand if you accidentally dropped it with the other. 

However, that part of the control strategy hasn’t yet been tested, and it’s part of Rogers’ plan for future development of the system.

Second, the docking system that connects the drones to packages needs to be further tested and developed to ensure that it is strong and rigid enough to connect to and lift the packages, while being inexpensive enough to be disposable.

Finally, aviation authorities need to decide how swarm technology fits into the current framework of drone regulations. While Amazon received a patent for a swarm of drones to be released from a blimp at high altitude back in 2016, currently according to the Part 107 regulations, the use of automation cannot allow a person to operate more than one small unmanned aircraft simultaneously (§ 107.35).

As automation and central control systems such as the one developed by the Georgia Tech research team get better, the FAA will need to eventually change this precedent and establish standards for swarm operations. 

These limitations aside, the Georgia Tech system represents notable progress, and it will be exciting to see what comes next in the world of drone delivery.

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn - Contributing Author

Miriam Hinthorn is an experienced management professional who is currently pursuing her master’s in Data, Economics, and Development Policy at MIT while serving as principal consultant at Consult92.

Miriam developed a love for UAS technology when she served as operations manager at Consortiq. Today, having completed over 30 successful projects in 10 countries, she loves solving a wide variety of logistical, technical, and cultural challenges for her clients so that they can focus on what care about most.

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