With the holiday season comes fleets of delivery vehicles on the roads routing packages to their final destinations. 

While most deliveries are made with trucks or cars, one MTRAC researcher is working on a project to clear the roads year round. 

Yanchao Liu, an assistant professor of Industrial & Systems Engineering at Wayne State University, works to design and implement improved systems through his research. 

His current project is an awardee of the Michigan Translational Research and Commercialization Innovation Hub for Advanced Transportation and focuses on a high-density drone delivery network which enables an 80% reduction of personal trips.

The project’s goal is to improve the time, energy and risk associated with urban delivery and logistics. 

Most “last mile” deliveries are completed with cars, something Yanchao and his Ph.D. student Zhenyu Zhou believe is not “fit for purpose” when it comes to meals or small packages. 

“These deliveries contribute to unnecessary congestion and pollution,” Yanchao said. “Technology exists to use smaller, unmanned ground vehicles or airborne drones to perform these deliveries.”

NASA is developing an air traffic control system specifically for low altitude drones and their system will enable a network of drones to deliver goods and provide other services, such as support of emergency responders, in a coordinated and safe way.  

“Our system uses real-time dynamic fleet routing and trajectory optimization in order to perform tasks more safely, quickly and efficiently than can be done with on-road delivery fleets,” he said. 

What distinguishes the team’s technology from others in the market is that most  other software tools for drones are intended for use by individual pilots, providing airspace access information in forms of real-time notification and authorization capabilities. 

“None of the existing tools are known to be able to provide automated trajectory-level vehicle routing and airspace management services, a gap which our technology intends to fill,” he said. 

This intention to get this technology into the market is what brought Yanchao and Zhenyu to MTRAC. 

“I want to see the benefit of my research realized in the real world,” Yanchao said.  “MTRAC provides a bridge between academic research and the startup world through providing funds, mentorship and process.”

The program has helped the team to understand how a specific industry works and how to introduce their technology in a low risk way, that will attract follow-on funding and customers.  

“I hope to create an innovative, Michigan-based business that contributes to cities operating in more efficient, sustainable and equitable ways,” he said. 

The MTRAC mentors have helped Yanchao to “get out of the lab” and to understand key stakeholders such as cities and regulators. 

“I am working to demonstrate my system as part of the NASA’s Unmanned Traffic Management Pilot Program, which will serve as a key trial before  running live pilots in cities such as Detroit.”

Yanchao believes their technology will be the most beneficial for on-demand delivery of stuff that everybody needs on a daily basis, such as meals, groceries, and beverages.

“These mass-market deliveries have the greatest need for achieving high economy-of-scale and high operational efficiency through routing optimization,” he said. “The technology will also enable city-scale drones as a service (DAAS) infrastructures.”

With a software prototype built which is able to perform the intended core functions on prototype quadcopter drone fleets, the team’s next step goal is to continue refining the core algorithms, and in the meantime implement the non-core but required functionalities for compliance purposes to integrate with the FAA’s systems.

Soon Yanchao will be working with the FAA, local governments and restaurants to demonstrate the system, progress he attributes in part to the MTRAC program. 

“For me, the MTRAC program helped in many ways beyond the monetary sponsorship it provides,” he said.  “The program director, staff and the oversight committee have been extremely helpful in providing guidance, coaching and resources for ensuring the business development to go hand in hand with technical development.”