Drones at Work: Delivering Pizza, Searching for the Lost... and Dismembering Snowmen

The application of drones

In June, the logistics company Amazon started its trial of delivering small packages via drones in Great Britain. Great Britain was chosen because of its flexible legislation in relation to drones. The company states that the use of drones will allow its customers to receive their packages as soon as 30 minutes after they make the order. Surely, this includes only the packages that weigh less than 2,2 kilos, but that is about 80% of the company's shipments, - reports bbc.com.

Two years ago, in Syktyvkar a drone delivered pizza right to the city park. The "DoDo Pizza" company that provided the service was sued for breaking the regulations of use of the aerial space. As a result, the company was declared not guilty, as well as got good advertising. The aerial vehicle used for this experiment was developed by the CopterExpress company. The company's head, Mr. Oleg Ponfilenok stated that his drones already work in Moscow as well, but there is yet to be a regular delivery service. There is still no stable demand for delivery via drones, so the company mostly does one-shots jobs, sometimes big ones - like delivering 500 packages during a month.

In a number of countries, drones have already caused a range of dangerous situations. For instance, there are many videos of drones delivering drugs on the Internet, as well as of drones flying in the airport's aerial space near the planes, and others. Actually, it's easy to imagine someone attaching a chainsaw to the drone and setting it on a murderous rampage, like in the KillerDrone video posted on Youtube.

Drones and copters heavier than 250 grams are already to be registered in USA. In Japan, they are testing a police drone which is to catch rogue drones with a special net. In some countries there is a fine for tourists who use drones with cameras.

Still, copters can be used for good purposes as well. The University of Zürich in collaboration with IDSIA has published an article about their recent development - a UAV that can search for people lost in a forest. The software for the robot was based on a neural link that's analyzed thousands of pictures of forest trails and learned to drive the drone along such ways. The application of the robot is still restricted by the battery life.

Amongst the drone's other applications are searching for oil spillages, monitoring the work on construction sites (there is the TraceAir company in Russia that provides such service) and other operations that have to do with monitoring something from above. Obviously, copters will be of great use to the Ministry of Emergency Situations for controlling forest fires and other natural or industrial emergency situations.

Technical problems

"For autonomous flight, a drone has to be fixed with lots of sensors. Apart from the usual accelerometer, barometer and compass, it will require a GPS set that will define the drones location, as well as a camera for its computer vision. Also, there are the transmitters for contacting the drone. By using the GPS set, the drone moves around the predefined map (GoogleMap, for instance). Still, different disturbances can significantly decrease the positioning's accurancy. Different color or radio tags can be used to solve this problem: for instance, the relays of the mobile service operators. The simultaneous use of these methods would allow to considerably increase the accuracy", - explained Alexander Shchukin, an engineer for ITMO's Department of Control Systems and Informatics.

Alexander Shchukin

Scientists from the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology in Zürich are trying to fix drones with navigational abilities that won't depend on online maps or any outer signals. They've published the results of their work on a system that will allow a UAC to model a 3d map of an area and use this data to navigate in an article in MIT Technology Review. The craft is fixed with a camera and sensors which calculate speed, distance and gravity. Still, this drone needs human help: it has to be navigated while it creates its own map of the area. After that, it makes up the shortest route to its destination point by itself.

The other essential problem is providing enough battery life for the drone. On the average, drones can fly up to 10 kilometers without recharge. After that, they require a human to plug them in. There are people in Russia that are working on this problem. A research assistant for the Laboratory of Intelligent Robotechnical Systems of the Innopolis University Igor Danilov is developing a drone that will be able to change its battery on special "recharge" stations - the drone will find them itself using GPS navigation, machine vision or radio signals. When the drone finds a station, it connects to it via a special protocol. It can be fully charged in 3-4 hours.

There is also a need to develop drones that would not stumble upon each other. This is possible by using operations control or a multi-agent system. Such systems will allow drones to know each other’s location and maneuver by themselves.

Igor Danilov

What stands between the drones and their market success?

There is no proper legislation for regulating unmanned flights in Russia. In the beginning of the year, a regulatory act has been passed that prohibited drone flights almost everywhere and obliged people owning drones that weigh more than 250 grams to register them. Still, in the beginning of the summer, an amendment was made that raised the weight up to 30 kilos.

"There sure is a problem of legislation, but it'll most certainly be solved. This is a case when the law changes according to the new conditions. As long there are no deliveries made by drones, there are no problems. I think there first will be some kind of a shadow market of drone deliveries, and then it will gradually come in the open - as this business will have to be regulated somehow. We've already faced this problem, and had several judicial cases: some of them we won, some - not", - says Mr. Ponfilenok, head of the CopterExpress. He added that the main problem of this market's development is that there is no such drone that will offer cheaper deliveries than those done traditionally. Still, his company is preparing a new copter based on the end-of-the-line technologies that will make deliveries extremely cheap.

The other task to be solved is the stock count on delivery, - adds Alexander Shchukin. One has to create a system which will be good for both client and company. Mobile apps can be of use here.

What's even more important is the landing site for the drone - it needs to be even enough; the drone may require special flagging for precise positioning.

"Security is the other issue. There already are lots of ways to capture the control of a drone: using special software, one can override your drone or fool the GPS set using a strong signal (GPS spoofing). To solve this problem, one has to cypher the drone’s controls or install some identification system. We also should not forget that you can capture a drone manually - during the flight or at the client's. This will have to be the work of the police", - added the engineer.

Thus, deliveries made by drones are still only a marketspeak. Regular deliveries are still too expensive for most companies, so machines won't replace regular couriers anytime soon.