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Companies ranging from Amazon to startups are testing delivery drones. Add to that list an ambitious team of undergrad students from three DPI universities who designed and tested their own autonomous flying delivery vehicle. 


 If you happened to be downstate near the UIUC campus one day in April you would have seen the team’s research experiment in action: a modified drone, with extra computing processing power onboard, flying point-to-point, dropping a small package from a fishing line to a spot on the ground and returning to its base.


   Jeffrey Zhou, a UIUC aerospace engineering major, said the future of delivery will involve both drivers and drones. His team, under the guidance of UIUC engineering professor Rakesh Nagi, focused on one potentially valuable niche: “Last mile” drone delivery, meaning small autonomous vehicles that would fly between a van and nearby residences, reducing the driver’s need to hustle from address to address.


  “The last mile is where it gets least efficient in terms of delivery,” Zhou said. The typical Amazon van has to navigate traffic and find parking. Then the driver has to navigate icy sidewalks or barking dogs on the way to the doorstep. Imagine instead a van equipped with several drones that can fly a neighborhood on their own and speedily drop individual smaller packages, freeing the driver to handle larger deliveries. “You have an allergy attack, we’ll be there in five minutes,” Zhou said. 


  Zhou and four other students were part of the first group of DPI Research Scholars, a program placing junior and senior engineering, computer and data science students from the University of Illinois Chicago, University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign and Illinois Tech into small groups to work on specific tech projects identified by DPI science teams.


  DPI’s mandate is to work with Illinois universities to encourage local tech research and develop a pipeline of talented professionals who will start their careers and companies in-state. One goal is to end the tech brain drain to California by showing the kind of exciting work possible in Chicago.


The Research Scholars program is a learning exercise and a substitute for internships that were canceled by the Covid pandemic. But it’s more than that because the students are contributing to cutting-edge ideas that have the potential to be commercialized. Research Scholar teams worked with DPI professors who have start-ups in fields such as AI for construction and farming robots. As for drone delivery concepts, one Silicon Valley company —Zipline — was recently valued at $2.75 billion.  


   “The opportunities for this are absolutely huge,” Nagi said during a video presentation of the students’ research. “According to one VP of Walmart, who happens to be an old student of mine, 200 extra deliveries can be done this way. The value argument exists. We need the access to capital to be able to scale this up or have a client willing to invest.”  


  For the drone project, the five students built and programmed their prototype using an off-the-shelf vehicle with customized parts from a 3D printer. They equipped it with sensors and cameras and tested their work in a digital simulation — calculating, for example, the effect of wind — before trying it out for real. In addition to Zhou, the other group members were Theo Guidroz of Illinois Tech (a computer engneering/AI major), Karan Singh Kochar of UIC (computer science), Jules Suarez of UIC (mechanical engineering) and Jessica Yoon of UIUC (mechanical engineering).  


  During the video presentation, the group showed footage of their real-world flying demonstration, including the humbling sight of a crash landing due to software trouble. The accident busted a rotor, but no pain, no gain. They flew again successfully and came close to a spot-on landing —exceptional work, Nagi noted, for a team of students taking on a one-semester assignment working remotely from locations around the world due to COVID.


 With time and funding, Zhou said, he could envision the team refining their prototype and possibly patenting what they designed. Even if that doesn’t happen, he’s rightfully proud of their accomplishment. “We are all in different places in the world, working on the project at the same time, developing software, making the prototype, CADing the model. It worked out way better than I expected. That’s how far technology has gone, which is incredible.” 

By Michael Lev