CEE professor helping drone package delivery take flight

8/1/2019 1:41:30 PM

The biggest question that remains in drone-based package delivery is how to manage the air space once the drones take flight.


By Emily Jankauski

Drones are set to become the newest carrier pigeons in the sky. Imagine drones swooping in to deliver your latest online purchase right to your front door.

Well, that is at least the hopes of courier delivery services, such as UPS and Amazon.

Courier delivery services, such as UPS, plan to use drones to deliver packages in the last mile of delivery in the future.
Courier delivery services, such as UPS, plan to use drones to deliver packages in the last mile of delivery in the future.
In fact, this soon-to-be common practice is already taking flight at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, where UPS drones deliver medical samples, such as blood, across the medical campus eight times a day — a journey that, according to CBS News, would take 45 minutes on foot.

It is impressive to say the least, but the trouble is the logistics of everyday deliveries to your doorstep.

That’s a problem Yanfeng Ouyang, a University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering professor, along with his research team, including postdoc Chao Lei, graduate student Rui Feng She and former doctoral student Zhaodong Wang, hope to solve.

The joint research project — low-altitude air traffic management/planning — is partially supported by a grant from the U.S. National Science Foundation.

Perhaps the biggest difference between drones delivering to a medical campus versus your front door is sheer distance and volume that require efficiency as well as flexibility.

To bridge the gap, courier delivery services will likely use a hybrid approach between trucks and drones.

Yanfeng Ouyang
Yanfeng Ouyang
“(The) hybrid delivery mode has gained more and more attention in recent years,” Ouyang said. “The main idea of the truck-drone delivery (mode) is that a truck carries large volumes of goods and drones over long distances to neighborhoods. (Once close), a drone would depart from a truck, which would continue moving, fly to a designated customer where it makes the delivery, and then return to the truck at a different location.”

The problem?

Drones will likely only take flight in the last mile of delivery. Their max in-flight time is 30 minutes, their package weight capacity comes in at 10 pounds and their battery performance is lackluster.

While logistical juggernauts like Amazon dream big with proposals for a flying warehouse, where drones depart and return all to one place, and Uber suggests an aero taxi service equipped with flying cars, Ouyang, says it is “critically important” to find the best tradeoff between truck travel versus drone travel.

But that’s not all. Perhaps the better question is how to navigate the air space once multiple courier delivery services launch drone-based package delivery?

“When that happens in the near future — with many drones flying from/to all different directions within a thin layer of low-altitude air space — the issue of aerial congestion would inevitably emerge,” Ouyang said.

For Ouyang, the answer could boil down to mathematics.

“My research aims to develop some general-purpose mathematical models for operating truck-drone delivery systems over a continuous spatial area while considering the truck-drone coordination requirement and the potential impact of aerial congestion,” he said.

Well, that and he intends to study drone flight trajectories and traffic patterns to lessen potential aerial congestion for both inbound and outbound package delivery.

Minor kinks aside, Ouyang is confident that the future of drone-based package delivery is nothing but clear skies ahead.