Two of the biggest challenges in making drones commercially viable as a method of delivery for Amazon, UPS and every other company eager to use them are space and distance. Fixed-wing drones require lots of space for long take-offs and landing but have great range due to their wings’ lift. Copter-style drones are great for take-offs and landings, but without the lift from wings, the they can’t fly as far on a charge.
A trio of Belgian college students have come up with a solution mixing fixed-wing flying with quadcopter take-offs and landings that may be the future of delivery-by-drone.
Cyriel Notteboom, Menno Hochstenbach and Maarten Verbandt designed the VertiKUL, a drone takes off like a quadcopter but flies like a plane, as their master’s thesis in engineering science at Belgium’s largest university, KU Leuven.
What’s remarkable about the VertiKUL is that it can pick up a 2-pound package and deliver it up to 30 kilometers (18 miles) away—a feat not currently possible using exclusively fixed-wing or rotocopter technology.
“The first drones were designed like small helicopters. This allowed for exceptional precision but limited range and speed due to high energy needs,”explained Notteboom in the college’s press release. “In our prototype, we combined the high speed of an airplane with the take-off and landing capacities of a helicopter.”
According to the university, designs have been tried in the past to incorporate fixed-wing and copter qualities into drones, but most relied on wings or rotors that moved or swiveled into place. The VertiKUL’s wings and rotors, however, are stationary. On take-off, the rotors provide lift, but once in the air the entire aircraft rotates 90 degrees and the rotors then provide thrust. With fewer moving parts, the college reports that it’s much more dependable that previous designs.
In addition, the team devised a landing system that allows the drone to be automated for package carrying. The team spent a year designing and building the first functional prototype and, according their advisor Bart Theys, will now work on improving reliability in bad weather and high winds.
Theys says another challenge to overcome before you’ll see the VertiKUL delivering your packages is the legality of using drones in US airspace. The Federal Aviation Administration has been working for nearly a decade to decide how to regulate this growing industry.
“A good deal of legislation will have to be in place before your pizza can automatically delivered to your back patio. At the moment, we are focusing on the technical challenges,” Theys said.
Currently, hobbyists are only allowed to fly in areas more than five miles from airports, no more than 400 feet in the air and always within sight of the pilot. But commercial flights of any kind, whether it by a search-and-rescue team looking for a lost child or that pizza delivery, are illegal, according to the FAA.
The FAA is currently accepting public comment on proposed regulations, with final law expected sometime in 2015.
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