If you’ve ever ordered anything online or via catalog, you’ve probably experienced, at least once, the frustration of waiting for that package to arrive. Particularly if it’s a package you need to sign for – I’ve had to cancel plans in order to make sure I was home when the delivery guy arrived, which could have been anywhere over the course of eight hours or so. It’s understandable – when humans are involved, there are going to be holdups, delays and schedule changes. Robots, however, are another matter – particularly flying robots.
Last year we covered Flirtey, a young startup dedicated to the development of drones for fully automated, airborne delivery services. In July, the company was responsible for the first FAA-approved drone delivery in the United States, when a series of medical deliveries were made to a rural healthcare clinic. Last week, Flirtey achieved another first – the first fully autonomous, FAA-approved drone delivery to an urban area in the US.
The drone flew along a pre-determined route and lowered a package containing bottled water, emergency food supplies and a first aid kit to a residential area in Hawthorne, Nevada. While a pilot and several other observers stood by, their assistance was never needed.
“This was by far one of the most successful UAS operations we ran and represents an advanced level of test and development of new UAS technology, flight planning, innovation, and mission execution by Flirtey,” said Chris Walach, Director of Operations for the FAA-designated Nevada UAS (Unmanned Aircraft Systems) Test Site. “The Flirtey team excelled in all aspects of safe flight operations in the National Airspace System (NAS).”
One of Flirtey’s top priorities in the development of autonomous drone delivery is disaster relief and other humanitarian aid. One of the biggest issues in getting timely aid to people in need is access – remoteness and infrastructure damage can severely slow down the delivery of relief supplies. Drone delivery could eliminate those problems. One thing the Nevada delivery showed was the drone’s ability to autonomously navigate around buildings and other obstacles, delivering its cargo with precision.
“Conducting the first drone delivery in an urban setting is a major achievement, taking us closer to the day that drones make regular deliveries to your front doorstep,” said Flirtey CEO Matt Sweeny. “Drone delivery by Flirtey is set to save lives and change lifestyles.”
It’s not just emergency situations that will benefit from drone delivery. Flirtey envisions a near future in which businesses and individuals can receive packages via drone. No more waiting anxiously for the delivery truck – drone delivery would be precise, timely and immune to the many issues that jam up human ground travel. If the idea of malfunctioning robots crashing out of the sky or dropping things on people’s heads makes you nervous, relax – Flirtey is implementing strict safety measures, and the drones will be as well-tested and regulated as any other aircraft. The day that we’ll see delivery drones regularly buzzing around the sky likely isn’t far off, either – and that’s at least partially thanks to Flirtey’s use of 3D printing.
“3D printing has been invaluable for our team in regards to rapid prototyping and keeping up with our fast-paced testing and production timelines at Flirtey,” Sweeny told 3DPrint.com. “The Flirtey delivery drone is constructed from carbon fibre, aluminium and 3D printed components. It is a lightweight, autonomous and electrically driven unmanned aerial vehicle. It conducts deliveries by lowering the package in a controlled manner with the drone hovering in place. Built in safety features include low battery return to safe location, auto return to home in case of strong winds, low GPS signal or communication loss.”
The successful and historic urban delivery was accomplished thanks in part to a collaboration with the Nevada Advanced Autonomous Systems Innovation Center at the University of Nevada Reno, whose engineers have played a large role in the development of the drone technology. They’ve also been working with NASA to create an air traffic management system for the low-altitude drones. Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems, a non-profit promoting the development of the UAS industry in Nevada, was also involved. Nevada’s hosting of the project was part of a larger effort on the state’s part to encourage innovation and research, boosted by a $10 million Knowledge Fund allocated in 2013.
“I congratulate Flirtey on successfully completing the nation’s first fully autonomous urban package delivery, and I am thrilled that Flirtey is not only testing its cutting-edge technology in Nevada, but also creating jobs through its headquarters relocation to Reno,” said Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval. “When we first set out to target Unmanned Aerial Vehicles through the Governor’s Office of Economic Development, we knew that our state had the expertise to make an FAA Test Site designation a reality, but what we really hoped to achieve was for Nevada to be the center of the commercial UAV industry — the epicenter of research and development, testing, manufacturing, and policy surrounding drones and autonomous systems. The Knowledge Fund has been a successful tool to draw the industry’s attention to our capabilities, and Flirtey’s relocation to Nevada is an important step in this process. I welcome Flirtey to the New Nevada, and look forward to watching them succeed.”
The recent delivery was filmed as part of a half-hour documentary called Foreign Correspondent, which will air on ABC sometime in mid-April. What do you think of the use of this new technology? Discuss in the 3D Printed Medical Drone Supplies forum over at 3DPB.com.