Student researchers unite MSU and NASA on electric drone payloads

A group of student Spartan Engineers has caught NASA’s attention with an innovative idea using electric delivery drones that “catch a ride” on public transportation vehicles.

The proposed electric drone will latch on top of public transportation vehicles. (Image: Laura Nicholas)
The proposed electric drone will latch on top of public
vehicles. (Image: Laura Nicholas)
 

The student research project calls for a novel electric drone latching and charging system to be placed on top of public transports -- saving battery energy and optimizing the payload capacity up to four times compared to state-of-the-art delivery drones.

MSU’s student team is one of three university squads that will each receive a grant of their requested amount up to $80,000 from NASA and will begin further research and construction this summer.

MSU’s initial student researchers were:

  • Yuchen Wang, team captain/drone team lead. A senior in electrical engineering, he is responsible for drone development and project management. 
  • Luke Lewallen, latching and charging team member. A senior in electrical engineering, he is responsible for latching/charging, and computer-aided design.
  • Kindred Griffis, latching and charging team lead. A senior in electrical engineering, he is responsible for electrical, magnetic, and mechanical systems. 
  • Hunter Carmack, latching and charging team member. A senior in electrical engineering, he is responsible for latching/charging.

NASA has hosted the University Student Research Challenge since 2018. It offers students an opportunity to develop a research proposal for some of the most pressing technical challenges today. Teams are invited to select from one of six research areas, known as strategic thrusts. Proposal winners receive a grant to pursue construction for one year.

Woongkul (Matt) Lee, an assistant professor of electrical and computer engineering and the instructor of ECE 320 - Energy Conversions and Power Electronics in fall 2020 - discovered the NASA research opportunity in September 2020.

Assistant Professor Woongkul (Matt) Lee introduced the NASA challenge to his ECE 320 class.
Assistant Professor Woongkul (Matt) Lee
introduced the NASA challenge in ECE
320.
“This is a unique opportunity for my students to explore and tackle a real-world engineering challenge, which goes beyond what the current curriculum can offer,” he said.

The project entailed a three-page proposal focused on one of six strategic thrusts aligned with NASA’s Aeronautics Research Mission Directorate (ARMD).

Lee offered the challenge as a final group project for the fall semester. The winning group’s proposal was based upon Strategic Thrust 4, “Safe, Quiet, and Affordable Vertical Lift Air Vehicles."

Lee said NASA research has been exploring how the introduction of drones in society might affect people - specifically, carrying packages and making deliveries such as Uber Eats and Amazon. NASA surveys discovered three main issues: safety, noise levels, and affordability.

To properly address the ARMD Strategic Implementation Plan, the students needed to come up with a novel drone delivery system that addresses all three challenges. The students discovered that typical drone flight times are very limited - only flying about 30 minutes per a single charge. Increasing size for the battery could be an option to extend the flight time, but with a bigger battery, it comes with more safety concerns, higher weights, and costs.

“My students came up with a clever idea,” Lee said. “Instead of flying 30 minutes back and forth, why don’t we use a drone that can hop on public transportation to cover most of the delivery range while continuously being charged?”

Senior Yuchen Wang came up with the idea after being stuck in traffic behind a CATA bus.
Senior Yuchen Wang came up with
the idea after being stuck in traffic
behind a CATA bus.
The idea originated from team lead Yuchen Wang’s unusual realization during an encounter with a Lansing CATA bus on his way to get takeout food. While stuck waiting behind the bus, Wang noticed the amount of empty space on top of the bus.

“Why not utilize that empty space and long wait times to create a latching and charging system for electric drones?” Wang asked.

The innovative idea, along with some serious team collaboration, resulted in the winning student research proposal: “Aerial Intra-city Delivery Electric Drones (AIDED) with High Payload Capacity.” The roofs of public transportation vehicles will allow the AIDED drones to lessen the battery size, increase the payload, and provide longer range.

On average, the motor life of a drone is about 1,000 to 3,000 hours. MSU’s AIDED drones will be at rest for up to 70 percent of the delivery process, approximately doubling the motor life and increasing both sustainability and affordability. The students also found that payloads could grow by four times for a state-of-the-art delivery drone.

“Research proposals like these are new to most of the undergraduate students,” Lee explained. “I worked with my students during the winter break and the beginning of the spring semester 2021, to give them an idea how this three-page proposal should look, starting from the motivation, identifying the problems, and emphasizing the uniqueness of our own solution.”

The proposal consisted of designs and prototypes of the drone describing specific latching and charging systems.

 AIDED will feature a latching and charging system. (Image: Laura Nicholas)
A latching system will secure the drone in place
so the copper charging system can renew its
power. (Image: Laura Nicholas)
 

“The blue drone in our sketched image shows one of our preliminary designs,” Wang said. “It is a mechanical latching and charging system. After the four vertical legs land into the funnels, each funnel's actuator will be turned on to secure the drone in place while on top of the bus. The bottom of the funnel will be made of copper for charging through the bottom of the four vertical legs.” 

After waiting two long months, the team heard back that MSU is one of the universities to win the University Student Research Challenge. Upon approval, Wang and Lee decided to expand this team to include those with experience in business, unmanned drone, computer science, electrical engineering, and mechanical engineering.

They reached out to various MSU students and MSU’s Unmanned System Club, an additional eight Spartan students will help the team move forward.

Recent environmental economics and management graduate Caroline Nicholas joined the team as its business lead, responsible for the Crowdfunding and budget management. The Crowdfunding campaign will include the team’s mission and technical explanation of the process, which will help spark public interest in the project. The rest of the students are divided into three teams: drone, software, and latching/charging.

Drone Team 

  • Gavin Gardner, junior in electrical engineering, unmanned systems electrical lead, responsible for drone electronics and hardware.
  • Jacob Martin, a May 2021 graduate in mechanical engineering, unmanned system mechanical lead, responsible for drone hardware/additive manufacturing.
  • Ryan Koschay, senior in mechanical engineering, responsible for drone hardware and electronic, CAD, and additive manufacturing.

Software Team

  • Kyle White, software team lead and a May 2021 graduate in computer science, responsible for software engineering.
  • Rohan Singh, unmanned systems team captain, senior in computer engineering, responsible for software/project management.
  • Scott Newhard, a May 2021 graduate in computer science, responsible for software development/engineering.

Latching/Charging Team

  • Shukai Wang, a May 2021 graduate in electrical engineering, responsible for magnetic latching.
Five key design factors are safety, payload, delivery range, quietness, and affordability. (Image: Laura Nicholas)
Design factors include safety,
payload, and affordability. (Image:
Laura Nicholas)
 

The team will receive the first half of the $80,000 grant from NASA and the second half after a minimum of $2,000 is raised in crowdfunding. Nicholas will launch a Crowdfunding link in August, with a three-month deadline to raise the necessary funds. NASA will take the success of the crowdfunding campaign into consideration when deciding whether or not to provide the team with the second half of the grant.

Currently, the team is conducting preliminary research including an electric drone chassis design, power electronics and motor selection, and latching/charging system configuration. From July to December 2021, the student team will build the drone and latching and charging system. From December to Spring 2022, they will be working with the software team to enable autonomous flying, latching, and charging. Full integration and steady improvements will continue through July and August 2022.

“We are a very diverse group of Spartan Engineers, and we are very passionate about this project,” Martin said. “We’ve built up these backgrounds for years and are finally applying the knowledge we have accumulated. We are putting in a lot because we believe in its cause and the future that it could bring.”

Written by Kee-Ri Burkitt, student writer for the MSU College of Engineering