Special delivery: How fleet management can revolutionize commercial drone industry

Commercial drones have many applications, not the least valuable of which is accelerated delivery of packages, food and other goods to consumers living in an increasingly on-demand society. Commensurate with the need for faster service at a lower cost, an estimated 392,000 drones will be sold in the U.S. this year, generating $1.6 billion in revenue. These figures are expected to grow seven times over by 2025.

As drones - or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) - become more prevalent in daily life, a need is arising to safely and efficiently manage fleets of these devices. In 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration began to develop standards for integrating UAVs into the airspace, including solutions for operations beyond visual line-of-sight (VLOS) and of multiple small unmanned aircraft systems (UAS).

A Wayne State University research project recently funded by the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization (MTRAC) Innovation Hub for Advanced Transportation at the University of Michigan aims to address the knowledge gap on how to manage multiple UAVs in complex operational, environmental and traffic conditions.

"The goal of this project is to create an optimal mission-planning and asset-management system for UAS fleet operations," said Yanchao Liu, assistant professor of industrial and systems engineering at Wayne State and principal investigator on the project. Zhenyu Zhou, a Ph.D. student in Liu's lab, also plays a key role on the research team.

At present, most outdoor applications of UAS are based on a single vehicle, flown by an individual remote pilot within VLOS operations. However, there is currently a lack of knowledge and resources for safely and efficiently managing a fleet of UAVs in sophisticated urban environments.

"Without such a system, the benefit of drone delivery will not be sufficiently materialized," said Liu.

Liu's project is multifaceted and includes real-time remote control over the internet, a simulation platform to facilitate algorithm development in advance of physical system implementation, and solutions to account for such factors as network errors or flight formation variants. Each aerial unit is equipped with an onboard computer module with corresponding Cloud-based ground control software.

"In a plug-and-play fashion, the system will turn a collection of heterogeneous multicopter drones into an organized and intelligent UAS fleet," said Liu.

As commercial drones become more pervasive - Amazon expects to roll out its drone distribution service in the coming months - Liu sees an opportunity to disrupt the on-demand meal delivery space, an $11 billion market in the U.S.

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