EPFL Collapsible Drone Offers “Last-centimeter Delivery”

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A team at École Polytechnique Fédérale de Lausanne (EPFL), a Swiss university specializing in engineering, has developed a foldable, origami-style delivery drone that encloses its package and has internal propellers for safer transport. It’s been labeled as a drone for “last-centimeter” delivery. 

Last-centimeter Delivery

When reading about the exciting potential of drone delivery, you’ve probably seen the term ‘last mile’ thrown around a few times. In management consultancy speak, going the ‘last mile’ might refer to solving a problem for good by making sure you get to the root of it. But in the world of drone delivery, the problems of the last mile are much more literal. In fact, it’s more like the last 30 yards.

In those final few seconds a drone delivery can come off seamlessly or everything can go very wrong, fast. The biggest threats are arguably external forces, from over-curious pets to trigger-happy neighbors or faulty delivery infrastructure. There’s all manner of things that even a smart autonomous drone won’t be able to account for.

EPFL drone delivery

Could a drone with a cage around the package and props be ideal for delivery?

Clearly, the biggest concern is safety. Delivery drones, just like any other, pose a risk to people on the ground. During the last few moments of delivery, they will likely be closer to the ground than at any point in the operation. It’s in these moments that an accident could cause harm to a passenger waiting for a parcel. So how can we make delivery drones safer, preparing for the worst possible scenario without compromising on performance?

That’s where the drone under development at EPFL offers an ingenious solution. Just like the drones we’ve seen from Flyability, the props are mounted inside a flexible cage, which is designed to absorb impact and allow people to handle it safely. If this drone looks remarkably similar to those offered by Flyability, that’s because its originated from the same technical university and project lead Przemyslaw Kornatowski was heavily involved in the development of both.

EPFL Delivery Drone Protects Cargo and Recipients

The most interesting aspect of the drone is that it wraps around the cargo before the flight. The foldable cage is made from carbon-fiber, which protects the drone and the cargo in case of a collision or fall. Better still, the idea is that whoever is receiving the package can simply and safely catch the drone in mid-flight without a risk of injury.

The EPFL drone’s frame can be collapsed or restructured in a single movement. When flattened, the drone’s volume is reduced by 92%.

EPFL’s drone collapses and can be restructured around a suspended package.

Inside the cage sits a multicopter with four propellers with enough power to carry a package weighing up to 500 grams over a distance of 2 kilometers.

In terms of software, everything has been designed specifically to suit the hardware. All a user has to do is create a flight plan and track it in real time through a smartphone application.

“This project is a work in progress – in addition to strengthening its ability to detect and avoid objects, we are exploring possibilities to increase the drone’s payload capacity and enhance its autonomy,” says Przemyslaw Kornatowski, from EPFL’s Labaratory of Intelligent Systems/

“Throughout the summer, we tested our human-friendly, drone-delivery system on the EPFL campus, delivering items to people over 150 test flights”.


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