Concept Urban Ray © RWTH Aachen, Chang Cao

This year’s NASA/DLR Design Challenge set out to find innovative solutions for the fully automatic, on-demand airborne delivery of parcels in urban areas. For the fourth time, the competition was held simultaneously in the USA and Germany. At the final symposium of the German contest, seven teams of students showcased what the future of urban logistics could look like. Their concrete challenge was to develop an efficient unmanned aircraft for urban use, along with the associated ground stations, ground logistics, safety strategy and business model.

The students’ package drones had to be capable of transporting parcels weighing up to 2.5 kilos directly over a distance of up to 15 kilometres and be able to take off and land safely on very limited platforms even with a crosswind. They were to operate at an altitude of 120 metres – a part of the urban airspace which is currently largely unused and therefore offers wide-ranging opportunities for unmanned aircraft subject to the corresponding additional regulation. The jury from the German Aerospace Center (Deutsches Zentrum für Luft- und Raumfahrt, DLR) awarded first place to the “Urban Ray” concept developed by RWTH Aachen. Second place went to the University of Stuttgart for “aIRO”, while the Technical University of Munich came third with “Mercurius”.

Urban Ray consists of a completely autonomous, electric UAS (unmanned aircraft system) with a blended wing body configuration and separate rotors for hovering and forward flight. The drone also has a parachute system with a shock-absorbing structure made of foam. As it can take off and land vertically, it only needs small platforms. A range of modular platforms was therefore developed, including everything from simple folding platforms to a central hub with a fully automated system for the loading and storage of packages and battery changes.

Urban Ray is designed to be offered as a pay-per-use service. On the German side, 37 students were registered for the 2020 challenge, divided into seven teams from six universities. Due to the coronavirus pandemic, the students largely worked together digitally. The kick-off meeting was also held as a videoconference. Two members of each team were permitted to attend the final symposium in Hamburg in person to present their team’s concept at the Center of Applied Aeronautical Research (ZAL).

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