Air transport without fossil fuel still has a major drawback – electric planes don’t get very far. Transporting goods by drone can circumvent that problem if you use a network in which drones fly from depot to depot to change batteries.
Two student drone teams of the Eindhoven University of Technology (TU/e) – Blue Jay and Syfly – have joined forces to develop this innovation under the name Aero Team Eindhoven.
Bram Schut, who has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and is currently following a master’s degree in data science, is this year’s team manager after joining Syfly two years ago.
“Working with Aero is a great opportunity to develop some soft skills alongside all the theoretical and technical subjects we are taught at university,” says Schut. “We are working with a team of about twenty highly motivated, volunteer students that aim to really make a difference.”
The original Syfly team aimed to build a sensor network for the planet. They did this by employing fixed wing drones equipped with sensors that monitor key features of natural ecosystems. Schut was part of this team before both teams merged earlier this year.
“Our goal with Syfly was to increase the accuracy, accessibility and quantity of data while lowering costs and labour,” says Schut. “A good example of this is weather forecasting. By using a network of autonomous drones to collect atmospheric data, we tried to increase the accuracy of weather forecasts and lower costs. Unfortunately it proved very difficult to get companies interested and hence get sponsors aboard.”
The other student team, Blue Jay Eindhoven, was originally founded in 2015 to organise the world’s first Drone Café in honour of the 60th anniversary of the TU/e. The increasing popularity of drones and the innovation possibilities with this technology sparked the effort to begin a student team that worked on indoor drones. The project evolved in the subsequent years to a drone that could be used to guide elderly residents of a nursing home out of the building during a fire evacuation.
Due to a shortage of nurses and a fire brigade response time of around 15 to 20 minutes, a fire in a home for the elderly can have disastrous consequences for the people inside the building. Various teams – teams change composition annually – have worked on the Blue Jay drone resulting in a drone that can recognise a particular person and different objects. This has been accomplished by combining intelligent learning algorithms with cameras of high image resolution and depth vision, thus resulting in effective face and object recognition.
The Blue Jay drone can also be assigned tasks in real-time through voice commands, but the most striking feature of the drone is that it can navigate any indoor environment all by itself. Also, once the drone senses its battery is running low, it can automatically fly back to its charging station.
“Knowledge about this latter feature is very useful in our new project with the Aero team,” says Schut.
Fewer staff positions
In March 2022, the two teams decided to join forces and come up with a new, innovative project. “The Blue Jay team faced several challenges with its drone, like the noise it makes inside a building. Obviously there are solutions to those challenges, but with the Syfly team also having difficulties, like finding funding, we felt like it was time to join forces and move on to something new,” says Schut.
Moreover, most students that join the teams have technical backgrounds, making it hard to find people for management, finance and HR roles within both teams.
“That was another reason for us to join forces, because with just one team, we needed less non-technical roles, making sure the people who join us can participate in engineering – the role they like most,” added Schut.
The newly formed Aero Team Eindhoven also tried to get other student drone teams onboard, but most of those teams favoured staying autonomous.
“We are in touch with several other student teams,” says Schut. “We share information on specific subject with, say, the drone team at the University of Twente and the team at Delft University of Technology. Although not frequent, our contact is mostly informal. Whenever we meet, we do talk about drones, but the sharing of information and knowledge is mostly ad hoc – when we encounter a challenge, we know another team has already built some experience in.”
Creating a network of interacting drones
After extensive research, the Aero team came up with a cool new project. “We want to redefine flying by developing an autonomous drone network for sustainable transport by zero-emission in air delivery,” says Schut.
Aviation contributes to a big part of emissions globally, and this remains a huge problem. Around 80% of aviation CO2 emissions are emitted from flights of over 1,500 kilometres, for which there is no practical alternative mode of transport.
Current solutions aren’t there yet or don’t scale well enough, therefore something has to change structurally. A transition needs to be started towards electric aviation, which can overcome the problems the sector currently faces, to empower more important players to embrace the transition towards a sustainable form of transport and aviation.
“Our goal is not to increase the range of aerial vehicles, such as airplanes,” says Schut. “Multibillionaire companies are investing a lot of money to increase the efficiency of aerial vehicles and the efficiency of batteries. It might not take very long before hydrogen batteries can be used, which improves the capacity.
“However, these remain relatively small improvements on the range of aerial vehicles. Most flights are longer than 1,500 kilometres, so to solve this problem, we need to change the concept of flying. A single aircraft will not be able to transport goods or people in the near future at this pace.
Bram Schut, Aero Team Eindhoven
“We envision a world where drones are interconnected in the sky. Our ultimate goal is to create a network of drones that can interact with each other on a whole new level. Rather than increase the range of a single drone, we are creating a network with a scalable, practically endless range. Using this network, we can connect Europe through the sky, in a sustainable way, electrically. We want to create the technology that enables the first steps of this network.”
The project the team is working on is a cargo drone that will be able to transport high-priority products or necessities, such as medication or donor organs between hospitals or priority packages between logistics warehouses and can be refuelled in mid-air by a second drone. This second drone, called a foetal drone, carries a spare battery and will switch the empty battery of the cargo drone by using artificial intelligence (AI).
“The cargo drone flies past these charging points where the foetal drones are awaiting a signal from a cargo drone to be refuelled. By creating this battery-swap technology, we can innovate alongside the battery developments, which will reduce the number of swaps needed,” says Schut.
The team has found a sponsor in GLS, one of the biggest shipping companies worldwide. “They aim to constantly evolve, innovate and grow. Topics such as sustainability cannot be overlooked and are actively considered and tackled in the company. To Aero, GLS is the main strategical sponsor, and supplies the funding, advice and platform for the initial use case of package-delivery,” adds Schut.
“Our solution fits perfectly within the vision of GLS – by actively working together, faster and better progress can be booked. To this end, strategic advice is given on how the technological development of Aero can be properly implemented in the world of shipping, and how developments can be steered towards the right direction.”
An important challenge with drones is their relatively short battery life. There are solutions where drones fly back to a charging station – like the Blue Jay drone could. But this comes at the expense of efficiency, as landing, loading and take-off take time.
“This solution is useful for drones that stay in a certain range, like security drones on an industrial estate,” says Schut. “For long-distance flights across Europe, there has yet to be developed a solution.”
Aero Team Eindhoven aims to develop a cargo drone that only has wings. “This improves its speed and efficiency, but at the same time means it is incredibly difficult for it to land – it needs a runway for that,” says Schut.
“You can imagine it would be close to impossible to build a battery-swap system that a cargo plane can land precisely on a marked spot, so that is why we came up with the second foetal drone. This drone will be more agile for it not only has wings, but also propellors, making it easier for it to precisely dock the cargo drone.”
The team is also developing the battery-swap system this year. Schut says it has defined a four-year roadmap: “This year, we will be building the cargo drone to fly efficiently and to be able to carry larger packages.”
They are developing this drone from scratch. “This year will also be about developing the battery-swap system. Our goal is to be able to do a battery swap on the ground by the end of the year. If the system is able to swap a battery without losing power on the cargo drone – called a hot swap – that’s when we’ll call our current year to be successful.”
Next year will see the development of the foetal drone, after which the team can work towards the actual changing of batteries in mid-air.
There are a lot of challenges the team faces. For instance, the precision with which the foetal drone has to land on the swap system of the cargo drone. “You can imagine up in the air there’s a lot of wind, more than we experience on the ground,” says Schut. “This is something we need to calculate to be able to have both drones dock on each other to change the battery.”
The swap system itself needs to be compact, because it needs to be fitted onto a drone. “We can build this very compact, but it needs to fold out in mid-air. Again, wind speeds will be challenging here. The two drones need to dock in mid-air, so we have some people on our team developing a solution for this mechanical precision,” Schut adds.
“But let’s not forget that it is already a challenge to build a new drone from scratch and get it to fly. We are really taking this one step at a time. This year’s goal is to have a functioning cargo drone and a working battery swap on the ground.”
Aero Team Eindhoven is also working on a communication system that has the drones communicating with each other so that the foetal drones that are waiting on the charging stations know when and where a cargo drone needs refuelling.
“In an ideal future, Europe would have several of these charging stations and a drone highway for cargo drones that can stay in the air endlessly to deliver high priority packages around Europe,” says Schut.
With consumers increasingly expecting next-day or same-day delivery and digitisation paving way for more international trading, the innovative solution Aero works on will be attractive to large parcel service providers across Europe.
Asked if the team is targeting intercontinental deliveries as well, Schut says: “That will be a huge challenge. Let’s just say that we aim to reach the UK to start with. Having drones fly across the ocean would mean that we would need charging stations in the middle of the sea. I don’t see that happening very soon.” But it is no denying that the innovation the teams work on could eventually form the basis for more sustainable aviation.
To learn about the impact of drones in cities and other populated areas, the team has started another project.
“Many cities have a ‘no fly’ zone, because it is regarded dangerous to fly drones in populated areas,” says Schut. “We have rebuilt four locations in Eindhoven in virtual reality. Participants in our project can experience what it is like when drones fly over. With sliders, they can adjust the number of drones in the VR location, but also the noise, the altitude of the drones and their size. This way, we aim to research when drones become a nuisance for local residents.”
Generating this data is an important step forward in drone development, says Schut, as most Dutch municipalities now have rules and regulations that ban commercial drones. “By analysing the acquired data, we hope to relieve the regulations, because those regulations inhibit innovation,” he adds.
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