The Skyways Project, a collaboration between NUS and global aerospace giant Airbus Helicopters (Airbus) which aims to develop an aerial drone delivery system for dense urban environments, showed off its steady progress on 8 February as a drone took to the skies at NUS, successfully completing its first flight demonstration.
Now at an advanced stage of development, the project will soon see users be able to drop off a small parcel at dedicated stations where a drone will collect and deliver it autonomously to the chosen destination via programmed air corridors. The parcel will be placed in a locker and the recipient notified that it is ready for collection. Trials are expected to commence across the NUS Kent Ridge campus in the first half of 2018.
“Project Skyways aligns with NUS’ vision of serving as a living lab to pilot innovative technologies and solutions. The NUS community is very excited to be the first in Singapore to experience this novel concept of parcel delivery by drones — an endeavour that could redefine urban logistics,” said Professor Ho Teck Hua, NUS Senior Deputy President and Provost.
Helping to get the project off the ground was Year 3 NUS Mechanical Engineering student Kiora Tandjono, who was involved in the design and conceptual stage as an intern with Airbus from July to December 2017. Kiora was given the arduous task of designing a mechanism that allowed the drone to be propped up for maintenance work. Later, she helped to design the parcel delivery station, drawing on calculation theories she had learnt in school to ensure her designs “didn’t fail, or failed at the right time”. The experience taught her many real-life skills, including points to consider when looking at cost of production and lead time, as well as how to deal with different groups of people such as suppliers and manufacturers.
“I feel very lucky to have been given this opportunity. The people at Airbus took us very seriously, which is why the experience was so valuable. We knew that they could do the designing themselves but they let us do it even though it took more time and several rounds of refining…It was an amazing feeling to come back and see that my design — which was just a drawing a while ago — has been actualised; it’s a real thing now!” said Kiora excitedly.
Alphonsus Tay began his six-month internship with the company in January 2018, picking up where Kiora’s team left off and working on assembly of the drones. After dabbling in robotics at a small outfit during a prior summer break and keen on a career in research and development, Alphonsus looked to Airbus to see what it would be like to work in a larger corporation.
“We learnt a fair bit about managing the assembling processes here. In school we do a lot of experiments but here we had the chance to try things we don’t always get to do in school, like surface treatment for materials and soldering of wires,” said the Year 3 NUS Mechanical Engineering student, who is also part of the Faculty’s Innovation & Design Programme.
He added that he was encouraged by the possibilities of the Skyways Project. “I feel that the Project is far-sighted and could ultimately have many applications beyond delivering parcels. It could be used to deliver medical supplies from one hospital to another, for example.”
Three other students from NUS Engineering have contributed to the Skyways Project as interns since 2017, taking evening modules in NUS while working full-time with Airbus.
Skyways Project Lead Mr Leo Jeoh said that the drone delivery system was an important step up in Airbus’ innovation ambitions of urban air mobility and that internships were a win-win situation — giving the students exposure while helping to grow the future talent pool with the skills needed to feed into the company’s vision.
“When they come here, they’re not just interns, they’re engineers. We hope we can get them to understand what it feels like to be engineers involved in designing air vehicles,” said Mr Jeoh.
For this, he said, it is really about aptitude and attitude. “With these two, and solid engineering fundamentals, you can be a really good engineer. Certainly these interns had a great attitude going in and have shown great aptitude as well in applying what they’ve learnt. It’s not easy to undergo experiential training. It’s not easy to really grasp the fundamentals and run with it, but they have managed to do it,” said Mr Jeoh.
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