Drone Delivery System — Part 1

3D mapping and flying Beyond Line Of Sight


The drone delivery market seems very promising and it is the next generation of shipment services. Unmanned drones will rapidly deliver packages to our doorsteps, reducing shipment delivery time, and cost of human labor. A drone can fly freely with a speed of 50 kn (58 mph) or more. Also, it is able to travel its entire path at cruise speed. This tremendously reduces the time to deliver a package from one point to another.

There are many companies have invested on drone delivery system such as Google, Amazon, Wal-Mart and DHL. For example, Amazon has developed the Amazon Prime Air project which will use drone technology to autonomously fly individual packages to customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes of ordering. Although, scientists could overcome the technical aspect of the project, the drone operation range is still limited due to the current the FAA regulations.

Amazon new concept design for a drone delivery air vehicle to deliver packages through Prime Air service. [Image Ref]

Regulation and Limitation

On June 21, 2016, the the Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration, “FAA” released the first operational rules (PDF) for routine commercial use of small unmanned aircraft systems opening pathways towards fully integrating UAS into the nation’s airspace. The FAA regulation for UAS at Part 170, Operation Limitation section, stated that: “The unmanned aircraft must remain within Visual Line Of Sight (VLOS) of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS. Also, the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the operator for the operator to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.” Maximum VLOS is about 200–300m out to maybe 1 km if the unmanned aircraft is of a suitable size and color. In an urban area, the VLOS will be limited to a few hundred of feet or less due to buildings, trees and a city’s infrastructures.

For more information about FAA UAS operational rules check: Operation and Certification of Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems; Proposed Rule

If the destination is farther than 500 ft from the pilot, the drone has to fly Beyond Line Of Sight (BLOS) which will violate the FAA regulations. In this case, Amazon has a few options to operate legally in US airspace such as hiring thousands of pilots and station them in a 400 ft radius range from each other. However, this option is not economically sound and tremendously increases the cost of any shipment.

Let’s consider if the FAA allows commercial drones to fly BLOS if the pilot has a visual of the drone from the departure point to the destination point with high resolution.

How would this be possible?

An option is an Airborne Surveillance platform mounted ARGUS-IS camera. “ARGUS-IS is an advanced camera system that uses hundreds of cell phone cameras in a mosaic to video and auto-track any moving object within a 36 square mile area.”

ARGUS-IS, a video surveillance platform can resolve details as small as six inches from an altitude of 20,000 feet (6km). [Image Ref]

For more information about ARGUS-IS camera check: 1.8 gigapixel ARGUS-IS. World’s highest resolution video surveillance platform by DARPA

A Surveillance Balloon is a fantastic choice for this mission. It can carry ARGUS-IS and transfer the video feed via wireless or cable to the ground station, with reasonable maintenance costs. Moreover, the balloon is able to hover at a fixed location as long as it is required.

Controp’s three-axis stabilized camera is carried by a surveillance balloon. [Image Ref]

The use of one camera is able to provide a mere 2D image of an object. However, it cannot provide the depth information of a scene. Therefore, the pilot will have difficulty avoiding obstacles on the drone’s trajectory. If multiple cameras at different angles cover the same area, a three-dimensional map, “Rapid 3D Mapping” of the area can be generated by combining all the cameras’ feeds.

For more information about Rapid 3D Mapping check: Rapid 3D Mapping — Sesam

Virtual Reality live streaming

If the drone’s flight path is designed such that it only passes above a city’s main roads, the Rapid 3D Map (Fig1) can be combined and synchronized with Google map (Fig2) at the drone’s instant location on the ground to build a fully 360 degree video of the drone from the top and ground views (Fig3). Therefore, the pilot is able to monitor the drone from the ground with VLOS in the virtual environment during entire flight as well as monitoring the drone live from the surveillance balloon.

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