Building a Custom Drone
To build a delivery drone from scratch, the primary resource would be the Dronecode Foundation projects PX4, MAVLink, MAVSDK and QGroundControl. Dronecode is anopen-source, non-profit under the Linux Foundation that has gained support in the industry.
With all the onboard software being open source, costs will only be related to the hardware and any cloud hosting services if required. The PX4 documentation provides a guide on how to get started building a drone.
The following is a summary of the major hardware components needed to build a delivery drone.
- Frame – The PX4 airframes reference lists common frames.
- Motors, propellers and Electronic Speed Controller
- Flight Controller – The PX4 flight controllerreference lists compatible controllers.
- Vehicle State Sensors – The PX4 sensorsreference lists required sensors.
- Telemetry\Radio Transmitter and Receiver
- Mission Computer – For controlling the drone from an onboard computer.
- Data Link – If wanting to communicate via Wi-Fi.
- Rangefinder - For precision landing and object avoidance.
- Payload System – For carrying and releasing packages.
- Docking Station – For autonomously recharging battery.
- Delivery Station – For autonomously receiving drove delivered packages.
The following infographic lists the main drone parts:
Picture Courtesy - Jethro Hazelhusrt (https://ardupilot.org)
The choice of separate, off the shelf payload systems isn’t extensive, though there are the following options.
- Unmanned Systems Operations Group- USOG are about to release a couple of different payload release systems. They have a smart winch design and a design that caters for multiple packages at the same time (pictured middle above).
- Skyzimir offer a payloaddrop system which can carry 3 packages, as do DroneFly.
- A2Z Drone Delivery - A2Z have a winch design, but this has a maximum payload of 2kg.
- UAV Systems - UAV systems have a number of options, one rated to 10kg.
- Foxtech, a drone and parts retailer, have a payload release system for 10kg packages.
Picture courtesy - Skyzimir, A2Z, and Heven
For secure package delivery, Valqari offer a delivery station which communicates with the drone to receive and post a package. Their station deployment model has been recently released and their mailbox model is scheduled for a Q4 2021 release.
Valqari drone delivery station
Overarching Drone Strategy
USVs and AUVs should be developing a drone/UAV strategy in isolation to a broader drone strategy which considers marine unmanned surface vehicles (USV), and autonomous underwater vehicles (AUV) may lead to developing an aerial drone that is capable of tasks better suited to a USV or AUV.
The advantages of a drone over a marine vehicle are the speed in which delivery occurs and the widespread technology adoption in the consumer space.
The disadvantage (of multirotor drones particularly) is that they require more energy as they have to counteract gravity, making carrying heavier payloads more energy intensive.
This dynamic explains why the first commercial drone delivery use case is for light and time sensitive payloads.
Before starting on a drone proof of concept, use cases for what packages drones will be used to deliver versus developed to narrow down requirements.
Proof of Concept
The first step in the development of a delivery drone would be to build a cheap, small-scale proof of concept (PoC) capable of:
- Attaching a payload
- Receiving coordinates for a delivery
- Autonomously flying to the delivery location
- Transmitting real-time position
- Releasing the payload
- Returning to base
The purpose of the PoC is to confirm the hardware components and software to perform the task. The specific hardware used in the PoC will be determined once the final drone payload requirements are finalized. This is needed as parts might be reused from the PoC in the production drone.
In addition to the hyperlinks above, this is a list of websites that were visited.
Custom Drone Companies