Can drones deliver the goods?
The wait for cargo-carrying drones may be longer than expected
THERE is a striking disparity between the commercial applications drone companies are pursuing in fields like construction, inspection or agriculture and the public perception of commercial drones. Media coverage is dominated by one particular application: delivery. experimental deliveries of parcels, pizzas and other items conjure up visions of skies abuzz with drones ferrying packages to and fro. But although delivery and logistics companies are interested in drones, many drone companies are not interested in deliveries. “It’s not on our immediate radar,” says Paul Xu of DJI.
Receiving something by drone is “kind of magical”, he says, launching into an impassioned case for drone delivery. Imagine you had a magic elf that could bring you anything you asked for within a minute or two, provided it could fit in a breadbin. You would no longer worry about what to take with you when going out. Nor would you keep common items, like batteries or perishable foodstuffs, on hand at home just in case you needed them. You might not need to own some rarely used objects at all if you could summon them when needed. Rapid drone delivery could thus accelerate the trend from ownership to access in the “sharing economy”, says Dr Teller. He claims delivery drones could be faster, quieter and more environmentally friendly than large delivery trucks. Project Wing now carries out experimental flights daily.
The technology giant most closely associated with delivery drones is Amazon. When its boss, Jeff Bezos, revealed his plans for drones in December 2013 on “60 Minutes”, an American television programme, they were widely assumed to be a publicity stunt. But Amazon is quite serious: it carried out its first trial delivery to a customer near Cambridge, England, last December—“13 minutes from click to delivery,” says Gur Kimchi, the head of Amazon’s drone effort. In March 2017 it conducted its first delivery demonstration in America, at a conference in Palm Springs. Like Google, Amazon is evaluating a range of different designs, all of which involve the drone lowering its package onto a target in the recipient’s garden or backyard. Logistics firms such as DHL and UPS, as well as some startups, are also looking at drone delivery.
与送货无人机关系最密切的技术巨头是亚马逊。当它的老板杰夫·贝佐斯(Jeff Bezos)在2013年12月的《60分钟》电视节目上公布无人机计划时，人们还普遍认为这是个噱头。但亚马逊是很认真的：去年12月它首次试验送货给英国剑桥附近的一位客户——“从下单到送货共用了13分钟。”亚马逊公司无人机项目的负责人古尔·金姆齐(Gur Kimchi)说。2017年3月，亚马逊在美国棕榈泉举行的一次会议上首次演示了送货。和谷歌一样，亚马逊正在评估一系列不同的设计，所有设计都需要无人机把包裹放到收件人的花园或后院的某个目标物上。DHL和UPS等物流公司以及一些创业公司也在关注无人机送货。
One application where drone delivery may make more sense, and is already in use, is ferrying medical supplies to remote areas that are hard to reach by road. Zipline, an American startup staffed by veterans of Google, SpaceX, Boeing and NASA, began delivering medical supplies in rural Rwanda using fixed-wing drones in October 2016. It has an agreement with the government to deliver blood products to 21 transfusion clinics from two bases, the first of which is already serving five clinics. Zipline’s drones can fly 150km on a single charge and work in rain and winds of up to 30km an hour. They are launched using a catapult, fly below 150 metres (500 feet) and drop cargo packages weighing 1.5kg by parachute.
Rolling out the service means mapping the best routes for the aircraft, which fly autonomously, co-ordinating with military and civilian authorities, training clinic staff to receive cargo and reassuring the local communities along the route. Whether all this is economically viable, or just a publicity stunt by Rwanda’s tech-loving government, is unclear. But the company is talking to governments in other countries about operating similar services, focusing on medical deliveries outside urban areas. It hopes to change public perceptions of the word “drone”. Zipline’s Justin Hamilton says one of the firm’s engineers once told him that he used to work on drones that drop bombs, “and now he builds drones that drop blood.”
Other startups say that drone delivery in urban areas is already possible—but using drones moving on the ground rather than in the air. Starship Technologies, based in Estonia, and Dispatch, based in California, have both developed wheeled, coolbox-sized drones that trundle along pavements to make local deliveries. Starship’s drones are being tested in several cities around the world, and Dispatch is about to begin tests in the San Francisco Bay Area. Both firms use a “partial autonomy” model, meaning that their drones can be remotely piloted for some or all of a route. As the drone approaches its destination, the recipient receives a smartphone alert, and when it arrives he uses his phone to pop open a lockable compartment to retrieve the cargo.
What if people steal the drone? Anyone who tries, says Stav Braun of Dispatch, has “just stolen a homing beacon”. A bigger concern, she says, is ensuring that the robot is courteous and people feel safe around it. But so far the response has been positive.
The disagreement over the viability of delivery drones, then, is mostly a matter of timing. For companies that wish to put drones to work now, delivery is not a good bet. But for logistics companies it makes sense to start exploring the possibilities. The end result may well be a hybrid system of delivery trucks that arrive in a neighbourhood and disgorge flying and wheeled drones.
Making all this work is a lofty goal. In November it emerged that the prototype Aquila had been substantially damaged on landing, triggering an investigation by flight-safety inspectors. And getting permission to fly such aircraft over any populated areas will not be easy. In January Google scrapped its own high-altitude communications-relay drone, Titan.
At the lowest end of the spectrum are insect-like drones, just a few centimetres across, that could be used for surveillance inside buildings, search and rescue, or even pollinating plants. Building very small drones is hard because the technology used in larger drones cannot simply be scaled down; different approaches are needed. In a paper published in February in the journal Chem, Japanese researchers explained how insect-sized drones covered in hairs coated with a special gel picked up pollen from one plant and deposited it on another. They concluded that robotic pollinators might offer a remedy for the decline in honeybee populations.
Perhaps the most far-out proposal to date is to use drones to carry human passengers in self-flying taxis. This is harder than using drones for package delivery, because it raises safety concerns for people in the air, not just on the ground. EHang, a Chinese drone firm, hopes to test its one-person drone, which resembles a giant quadcopter with a passenger compartment, in Dubai in July. Other companies, including Airbus, Uber and Kitty Hawk, have proposed similar “flying car” drones. Dario Floreano, a robotics professor at the Swiss Federal Institute of Technology (see next article), has been thinking about passenger drones as part of the European Union’s “myCopter” project. Packages, he says, can withstand sudden accelerations during flight that humans cannot, which makes path-planning and obstacle avoidance more difficult. And the limited energy density of batteries may restrict the range of passenger drones to intra-city hops.
也许迄今为止最奇怪的提议是把无人机作为自驾空中出租车来运送乘客。这比使用无人机递送包裹更困难，因为除了地面人员的安全，它还引发了空中人员的安全问题。中国无人机公司亿航希望7月份在迪拜测试其单人无人机，这个机器像是一个带座舱的巨型四翼直升机。其他公司，包括空中客车、优步和Kitty Hawk都提出了类似的“飞行车”无人机设想。瑞士联邦理工学院的机器人学教授达里奥·弗洛雷诺(Dario Floreano)一直在考虑将载客无人机作为欧盟“myCopter”项目的一部分。他说，包裹可以承受人类所不能承受的飞行时突然加速，这使得规划路径和避让障碍的任务变得更加艰巨。电池能量密度有限，可能会将载客无人机的运作范围限制在城市内。如果想了解更多关相关信息，请关注启德考培成都分校平台，免费获取备考提分解决方案，或欢迎 点击这里 进行网络咨询，我们会给您提供专业的服务。最后，预祝大家能在托福考试中取得理想中的成绩。