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Students build drone for transporting packages

Meet VertiKUL, a student-designed prototype at the cutting edge of delivery drone technology

Meet VertiKUL, a student-designed prototype at the cutting edge of delivery drone technology

Unmanned aircraft may one day be used to deliver packages to your back patio, important documents to your lawyer or even vital organs to hospital for transplantation. Although the legal framework for ‘delivery drones’ is not yet in place, the technology – as three students of engineering science at KU Leuven show – nearly is. 

Master’s students Cyriel Notteboom, Menno Hochstenbach and Maarten Verbandt were given an unusual assignment for their master’s thesis: build a fully functioning drone. A year of intensive work later, VertiKUL made its maiden flight. The unmanned aircraft can pick up a package and deliver it to a destination up to 30 kilometres away. 

While VertiKUL is not the first delivery drone around, it does include some notable improvements compared to its older competitors.

“The first drones were designed like small helicopters. This allowed for exceptional precision but limited range and speed due to high energy needs,” says master’s student of engineering science and project member Cyriel Notteboom. “In our prototype, we combined the high speed of an airplane with the take-off and landing capacities of a helicopter.”

The drone’s four propellers provide the necessary carrying capacity during take-off and landing. To transition from vertical to horizontal motion, the drone rotates its nose 90° forward. In-air stability is ensured by the propellers, which adjust independently as needed. The wings increase energy efficiency during forward propulsion. The limited number of moving parts makes for a robust and dependable design.

The drone sets out for its destination with a charged battery and a 1-kilo package. With the help of GPS coordinates, its flies to its drop-off point – as far as 30 kilometres away. Once it has arrived at its location, it makes a careful precision landing.

Maarten: “We designed the landing system so that the drone can land very carefully and precisely. All of this happens automatically on a round landing platform. The platform is lit with LEDs to allow for nighttime landings.”

So how long before the university delivers diplomas using VertiKUL? Advisor and doctoral researcher Bart Theys: “It’s hard to say because there is still work to be done. For instance, we still need to teach the drone to adapt to changing weather conditions. In testing, we noticed that a strong wind can really play tricks on us. An automated landing in high winds is no easy task. That is the next challenge.”

“At present, delivery drones are not allowed for commercial use. Companies like Amazon are of course very interested in the technology, but there is currently no legal framework for the use of airspace. A good deal of legislation will have to be in place before your pizza can automatically be delivered to your back patio. At the moment, we are focusing on the technical challenges. Thanks to the efforts of Cyriel, Menno and Maarten, we have made real progress on that front. They should be proud to call themselves Masters of Engineering.”