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Stanford students are trying to design the perfect delivery drone

Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos really started something when he unveiled a prototype of one of the first-ever delivery drones back in 2013.

Engineers are still working on the Prime Air machine, but since then a growing number of companies around the world have been developing and testing their own drone-based delivery platforms to offer a whole new way of getting goods from A to B.

Educators are also participating in this exciting technology, with Stanford University recently launching a course in Aerial Robot Design, part of which involves dreaming up concepts for delivery drones and putting them into action.

This year’s students are already building autonomous quadcopters from scratch, fitting them with custom delivery mechanisms, and testing them out in the field.

“Most of our students have never designed anything that has to take to the air and fly at all,” Eric Chang, one of the course’s teaching assistants, told Stanford University‘s news site. “This is their first step into considering the factors that go into designing an aerial robot.”

Working in several groups made up of a mix of undergraduate and graduate students, the participants have three specific goals in mind with their respective drone delivery platforms — to make them “reliable, realistic, and consumer-friendly.”

The current class of budding engineers has already discovered that for drone delivery over longer distances, quadcopters aren’t ideal.

“One of the first things we learned in this course is you really can’t get much range at all with quadcopters,” Luke Asperger, a graduate student in mechanical engineering, told the university’s news site. “Whereas, if you got that wing, you’ve got a lot of lift. And the actual cruising part of the flight doesn’t take much power, so you can go pretty far.”

Students have been tasked with creating what some consider as the ideal delivery drone — a machine that lifts off the ground vertically before switching to winged flight for the main journey and then coming back down vertically to drop off the delivery.

The ongoing work has so far involved plenty of experimentation with all aspects of drone design to build a machine with optimal flight efficiency, while teams have also been trying out various delivery methods, including trapdoor mechanisms, parachutes, and spring-loaded boxes.

Chang said the class is like “a think tank for coming up with novel delivery ideas, where drones can really take part in improving the delivery experience.”

The skills that the students are developing are wide ranging to ensure that they will have plenty of employment options beyond pure drone design. But those that do take their current interest into the workplace could certainly have a hand in the creation of tomorrow’s drone delivery systems.

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