Drone Startup to Fly Pallets Without Pilots - IEEE Spectrum

2022-01-15 10:02:42 By : Ms. Pam Sheng

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Dronamics will test a radical new vision of long-range cargo transport in Europe

A Black Swan drone, from Dronamics, stands at the ready.

Delivering things by drone began as a stunt in 2012, when a model airplane dropped a burrito by parachute to a hungry customer waiting below. The concept then graduated, first to a proof-of-principle venture in Iceland using multicopters, then to a well-funded Amazon project in the United Kingdom. But these and similar attempts to solve the last-mile problem—the mile leading to the customer—have largely been disappointing. Amazon recently scaled back its drone-based delivery project in the U.K.

In 2022, Dronamics, a company based in London and Sofia, Bulgaria, will test-fly a drone in Europe that will carry far more than a mere burrito and over far longer distances. It addresses the less sexy but equally important middle-distance problem—the route that connects factories to warehouses. The point is to take a slice of business that’s now handled by regular air freight and by trucks—above all, the quick delivery of critical parts. If this service had been available a year or two ago, it might not have prevented the logistics logjam that now plagues the world, but it would have cleared away some of the more problematic bottlenecks.

Dronamics will run trials with its partners, including DHL and Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, in the hope of eventually fielding thousands of drones, each carrying as much as 350 kilograms of cargo up to 2,500 kilometers. The European Union has facilitated this sort of experimentation by instituting a single certification policy for drone aircraft. Once its aircraft are certified, Dronamics must get a route approved through one of the E.U.’s member countries; that done, it should be fairly easy to get other member countries to agree as well.

In October, Dronamics announced that it would use Malta as its base, with a view to connecting first to Italy and later to other Mediterranean countries.

One thing Dronamics doesn’t do is full-scale autonomy: Its planes do not detect and avoid obstacles. Instead, each flight is programmed in advance, in a purely deterministic way. Flights often take place in controlled airspace and always between drone ports that the company controls. Someone on the ground monitors the flight from afar, and if something unexpected arises, that person can redirect the plane.

“We operate like a proper airline, but we can intervene,” says Svilen Rangelov, the cofounder and CEO of Dronamics. “We’re looking for underserved airports, using time slots where there is no passenger traffic. In the United States there are 17,000 airports, but only about 400 are commercially used. The rest don’t have regular service at all.”

Unlike the multicopter burrito drones of years past, or even Amazon’s prototypes, these machines fly on fixed wings and are powered by internal combustion engines, the better to carry big loads long distances and to operate at off-the-grid airfields. “Anything less than 200 miles [about 320 kilometers] is not appropriate because, given the time to get to the airport, fly, and then pick up, you may as well truck it,” Rangelov says.

The company’s drone is called Black Swan, a phrase often used to describe important but unpredictable events. “That was precisely the reasoning” behind the name, Rangelov says, explaining what makes this drone so unique and rare. "We knew [the drone] had to be cheaper to produce and to operate than any existing models.”

The drone likely will not be carrying one pallet of the same things but multiple packages for many customers.

Because this vehicle is intended to transport cargo with no people on board, Dronamics could design the interior to fit cargo pallets. “It’s exactly the right cargo size for this business,” Rangelov says. “It likely will not be carrying one pallet of the same things but multiple packages for many customers.” And Dronamics claims it can carry cargo for half of what today’s air freighters charge.

Hellmann Worldwide Logistics sees a lot of potential for using Dronamics in Africa and other places with limited infrastructure. For now, though, the company is focused on the dense population, manageable distances, and supportive governmental institutions of Europe.

“Especially between north and south Europe—from Germany and Hungary, where there’s a lot of automotive business,” says Jan Kleine-Lasthues, Hellmann’s chief operating officer for air freight. There are also supply lines going into Italy that service the cruise ships on the Mediterranean Sea, he says, and fresh fish would be ideal cargo. Indeed, Dronamics is working on a temperature-controlled container.

What effect would massive fleets of such drones have had on today’s supply-chain problems? “It could help,” he says. “If the container isn’t arriving with production material, we could use drones to keep production alive. But it’s not replacing the big flow—it’s just a more flexible, more agile mode of transport.”

Before cargo drones darken the skies, though, Hellmann wants to see how the rollout goes.

“First of all, we want to try it,” Kleine-Lasthues says. “One use case is replacing commercial air freight—for example, Frankfurt to Barcelona by drone; also, there’s a use case replacing vans. If it is working, I think it can be quickly ramped up. The question is how fast can Dronamics add capacity to the market.”

This article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “Flying Pallets Without Pilots.”

Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.

Just what the world needs?

Unitree Robotics, well known for providing affordable legged robots along with questionable Star Wars–themed promotional videos, has announced a brand-new, custom-made, 6-degree-of-freedom robotic arm intended to be mounted on the back of its larger quadrupeds. Also, it will save humanity from Sith from Mars, or something.

This, we should point out, is not the first time Unitree has used the Force in a promotional video, although its first attempt was very Dark Side and the second attempt seemed to be mostly an apology for the first. The most recent video here seems to have landed squarely on the Light Side, which is good, but I’m kinda confused about the suggestion that the baddies come from Mars (?) and most humans are killed (??) and the answer is some sort of “Super AI” (???). I guess Unitree will have to release more products so that we can learn how this story ends.

Anyway, about the arm: There are two versions, the Z1 Air and the Z1 Pro, built with custom motors using harmonic reducers for low backlash and torque control. They are almost exactly the same, except that the Pro weighs 4.3 kilograms rather than 4.1 kg, and has a payload of 3–5 kg rather than 2 kg. Max reach is 0.7 meters, with 0.1 millimeter repeatability. The price for the Air version is “about $6600,” and it’s compatible with “other mobile robots” as well.

It’s important to note that just having an arm on a robot is arguably the easy part—it’s using the arm that’s the hard part, in the sense that you have to program it to do what you need it to do. A strong, lightweight, and well-integrated arm certainly makes that job easier, but it remains to be seen what will be involved in getting the arm to do useful stuff. I don’t want to draw too many comparisons to Boston Dynamics here, but Spot’s arm comes with autonomous and semi-autonomous behaviors built-in, allowing otherwise complex actions to be leveraged by commercial end users. It’s not yet clear how Unitree is handling this.

We’re at the point now with robots in general that in many cases, software is the differentiator rather than hardware, and you get what you pay for. That said, sometimes what you want or need is a more affordable system to work with, and remember that Unitree’s AlienGo costs under $10K. There’s certainly a demand for affordable hardware, and while it may not be ready to be dropped into commercial applications just yet, it’s good to see options like these on the market.

DARPA wants to use them to measure the rotation of submarines

Philip E. Ross is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. His interests include transportation, energy storage, AI, and the economic aspects of technology. He has a master's degree in international affairs from Columbia University and another, in journalism, from the University of Michigan.

A quantum gas first as an elongated rod rotates and becomes helical, then to breaks up into blobs, each a swirling mass. Between the blobs tiny vortices appear ('x' marks, inset) in a regularly repeating series.

Shrink down to the level of atoms and you enter the quantum world, so supremely weird that even a physicist will sometimes gape. Hook that little world to our big, classical one, and a cat can be both alive and dead (sort of).

“If you think you understand quantum mechanics, you don’t understand quantum mechanics,” said the great Richard Feynman, four decades ago. And he knew what he was talking about (sort of).

Now comes a report on a quantum gas, called a Bose-Einstein condensate, which scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology first stretched into a skinny rod, then rotated until it broke up. The result was a series of daughter vortices, each one a mini-me of the mother form.

The research, published in Nature, was conducted by a team of scientists affiliated with the MIT-Harvard Center for Ultracold Atoms and MIT’s Research Laboratory of Electronics.

The rotating quantum clouds, effectively quantum tornadoes, recall phenomena seen in the large-scale, classical world that we are familiar with. One example would be so-called Kelvin-Helmholtz clouds, which look like periodically repeating, serrated cartoon images of waves on the ocean.

These wave-shaped clouds, seen over an apartment complex in Denver, exhibit what’s called Kelvin-Helmholtz instability.Rick Duffy/Wikipedia

The way to make quantum cloud vortices, though, involves more lab equipment and less atmospheric wind shear. “We start with a Bose-Einstein condensate, 1 million sodium atoms that share one and the same quantum-mechanical wave function,”…, says Martin Zwierlein, a professor of physics at MIT.

The same mechanism that confines the gas—an atom trap, made up of laser beams—allows the researchers to squeeze it and then spin it like a propeller. “We know what direction we’re pushing, and we see the gas getting longer,” he says. “The same thing would happen to a drop of water if I were to spin it up in the same way—the drop would elongate while spinning.”

What they actually see is effectively the shadow cast by the sodium atoms as they fluoresce when illuminated by laser light, a technique known as absorption imaging. Successive frames in a movie can be captured by a well-placed CCD camera.

At a particular rotation rate, the gas breaks up into little clouds. “It develops these funny undulations—we call it flaky, then becomes even more extreme. We see how this gas ‘crystalizes’ in a chain of droplets—in the last image there are eight droplets.”

Why settle for a one-dimensional crystal when you can go for two? And in fact the researchers say they have done just that, in as yet unpublished research.

That a rotating quantum gas would break into blobs had been predicted by theory—that is, one could infer that this would happen from earlier theoretical work. “We in the lab didn’t expect this—I was not aware of the paper; we just found it,” Zwierlein says. “It took us a while to figure it out.”

The crystalline form appears clearly in a magnified part of one of the images. Two connections, or bridges, can be seen in the quantum fluid, and instead of the single big hole you’d see in water, the quantum fluid has a whole train of quantized vortices. In a magnified part of the image, the MIT researchers found a number of these little holelike patterns, chained together in regularly repeating fashion.

“It’s similar in what happens when clouds pass each other in the sky,” he says. “An originally homogeneous cloud starts forming successive fingers in the Kelvin-Helmholtz pattern.”

Very pretty, you say, but surely there can be no practical application. Of course there can; the universe is quantum. The research at MIT is funded by DARPA—the Defense Research Advanced Project Agency—which hopes to use a ring of quantum tornadoes as fabulously sensitive rotation sensors.

Today if you’re a submarine lying under the sea, incommunicado, you might want to use a fiber optic gyroscope to detect slight rotational movement. Light travels in both one way and the other in the fiber, and if the entire thing is spinning, you should get an interference pattern. But if you use atoms rather than light, you should be able to do the job better, because atoms are so much slower. Such a quantum-tornado sensor could also measure slight changes in the earth’s rotation, perhaps to see how the core of the earth might be affecting things.

The MIT researchers have gone far down the rabbit hole, but not quite to the bottom of it. Those little daughter tornadoes can be confirmed as still being Bose-Einstein condensates because even the smallest ones still have about 10 atoms apiece. If you could get down to just one per vortex, you’d have the quantum Hall effect, which is a different state of matter. And with two atoms per vortex, you’d get a “fractional quantum Hall” fluid, with each atom “doing its own thing, not sharing a wave function,” Zwierlein says.

The quantum Hall effect is now used to define the ratio of Planck’s constant divided by the charge of the electron squared (h/e2)—a number called the von Klitzing constant—which is about as basic as basic physics gets. But this effect is still not fully understood. Most studies have focused on the behavior of electrons, and the MIT researchers are trying to use sodium atoms as stand-ins, says Zwierlein.

So although they’re not all the way to the bottom of the scale yet, there’s plenty of room for discovery on the way to the bottom. As Feynman also might have said (sort of).

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