Founder A2Z Drone Delivery
Today, we have an exciting guest for our UAV Interview Series. Let us introduce you Aaron Zhang, a graduate of Brown University.
He, along with his colleagues Jacob & Nikolay, invented a patented drone delivery mechanism tackling noise concerns and privacy.
Aaron launched a research-focused drone delivery project called A2Z Drone Delivery to develop a minimally-invasive method to implement efficient and safe delivery and pickup for urban regions via its freefall delivery mechanism.
In this interview, he will take us through how he got started with drones, how A2Z Drone Delivery came to life, current trends & predictions about drone delivery industry, his life-changing experience of first drone crash, unforgettable events he was part of, and so on.
As long as guys like Aaron are around fiddling with ideas, one thing is for sure, that is we will hopefully soon make delivery by drones a reality.
So, without wasting any further time, let us dive into the interview and find out what Aaron & co have to say on this topic.
Welcome Aaron, say to us a little about yourself. How have you got so passionate with drones?
Thank you for this interview opportunity. I’m currently 24, graduated from Brown University with my undergraduate and Master’s degree in 2018, then moved over to Los Angeles last fall. I was born on the Bay Area & grew up in Shanghai, China.
I have a natural fascination with all things mechanical and have involved in lots of robotics competitions leading up to college. I always had a thing for remote presence, so I worked on animatronic robot hands first when I got to Brown.
I was able to control a robot hand back home in Shanghai through a glove while at my dorm at Brown.Back in high school, we had a Relay For Life event where I used my radio-controlled nitrous truck combined with a phone on a video call to do our team’s laps around the track.
I used to also play with RC helicopters as a kid, so when I saw that all of a sudden, multicopters were in the mainstream, I wanted to build my own. My first drone was made using a Pixhawk controller and an extruded aluminum frame.
It was an octocopter that had a rack and pinion mechanism under the belly. I had a pretty bad accident while testing the copter, but the moment that big thing lifted off, I was in love.
What did you notice first about delivery quadcopters that made you believe it would catch on, and not be some fad or hobby?
I didn’t know it would catch on. I work on it because it gives me a kick and I thought that I could make something cool.
Tell us about the A2Z Drone Delivery project, what is it, and your crew there. How does the project got started?
A2Z Drone Delivery is a research-focused drone delivery startup. The “research-focused” means that we have no immediate commercial implementation intent at the moment.
Our main goal in the short run is to develop a safe, accurate, and non-invasive method of drone delivery that will incite confidence and trust from the general public.
We also identify a certain degree of entertainment value to what we’re working on, so part of our plan is to conduct exciting showcases to build publicity and awareness around our work. By showing the general public what our technology is capable of, and harnessing their creativity, we can read a better pulse on what we could design in a product in the future.
Currently, our team consists of three core members: Jacob Dyer, Nikolay Nikolov, and me. We have supportive mentors at Brown Engineering, and a network of industry professionals from leading drone companies such as DJI and Yuneec. The project started during the fall of 2017.
I got to meet Nikolay through a good friend, and Jacob and I had known each other since high school. We planned to develop a drone delivery system to deliver spicy chicken sandwiches from a late-night eatery to anywhere on campus.
Pretty soon, we realized that keeping the spicy chicken warm in the New England cold was just the lightest of concerns. That never worked, but the fantasy got us thinking, and a year later, we were delivering Insomnia Cookies to students on Brown’s Main Green.
Who are you covering? What types of industries/people have you noticed are most keen on drone delivery?
We have spoken to people from golf courses, coast guard, search and rescue, food delivery, cruise ships, cargo ships. Mostly, everyone, we speak to think it’s a new and fascinating concept and is even more intrigued when they see it in real life.
However, I believe there is a good number of missing pieces regarding energy storage, privacy and noise issues, and how drones share the airspace with other aircraft.
Everyone’s interested and curious, but that’s not enough, and we don’t blame them, because we are also aware of the missing pieces.
The current drone industry landscape has many competitive and major players like UPS, Google, Amazon, etc. How would you make your invention and yourself stand out on the crowd?
Drone delivery becoming adopted is a big boulder that requires lots of big players to be involved.
So, we’re glad that some companies are making good progress with regards to both maturing regulation and technology.
We currently focus on doing one thing best, and that’s developing an innovative, safe, non-invasive delivery method.
By focusing on addressing noise and privacy concerns first and foremost, we stay close to potential customers and are extra mindful of the actual human impact of our technology.
In a landscape where many large companies commit large amounts of resources to solve a big problem, it’s easy to overlook the smaller concerns.
Are there any forthcoming developments in your research to allow for higher payload capacities and longer flight times?
We’re currently focused on the delivery mechanism and are not focusing on longer flight times and higher payload capacities.
You talk regarding the need for tackling noise and privacy problems. What are the hazards of conventional drone deliveries? And how is your patented UAV delivery mechanism can address these concerns?
What I mean when I say traditional drone deliveries is by landing or actively unreeling a payload via the tether.
Both of those methods require the drone to be close enough to the ground; therefore, it is straightforward for people to raise privacy and noise concerns.
The farther the drone is from people, the safer it is for the drone and people. It gives more time for the drone and people to react in the case that something goes wrong.
It also gives people a better sense of privacy when the drone is higher up and farther away. Noise is significantly reduced as well.
Our mechanism allows us to deliver items safely and quickly from a higher altitude. We shorten the time the package is in transit to the ground, yet at the same time making sure that the delivery process is gentle and smooth.
Whereas, actively unreeling a payload via a tether from a high altitude is not only time but also energy inefficient, and it prolongs the window of risk that is when the payload is swinging its way to the ground.
What are a few of the most creative ways you have seen drones getting used other than for drone delivery?
Inspection. I have friends who are working on precision agriculture, inspecting citrus crops for diseases. Radio tower inspection, oil rig inspection, construction, are all great drone applications.
I think DJI is doing an excellent job with the Mavic Pro Enterprise Edition. Small form factor, big impact.
Have you ever before crashed a drone quadcopter? What was your most awful experience?
I have. My worst experience was when I was putting together my first drone, the octocopter. I was in my tiny dorm room, and it was 2 a.m.
I climbed into bed after a day of troubleshooting. I was pretty tired, and a bit frustrated that it wouldn’t respond to throttle controls.
Right while I was about to fall asleep, I realized that I could have forgotten to update a specific parameter on the controller. Rather than trying it the next day in the lab, I climbed out of bed and made those changes immediately.
I manually armed the drone (I don’t know why) and switched on the controller. Right away, the drone took off, and I felt a quick flick on my left index finger.
That was the worst experience I’ve had with drones. I’m lucky to be typing today with all my fingers, but on that night, on the ambulance to Miriam Hospital, I was expecting to live the rest of my life with just nine and a half fingers.
What are your views on the future of the automated drones for delivery companies? Will this be a factor, do you believe, and in that case, when may we get to see drones being used to commercial deliveries?
That definitely will be a thing. Last mile delivery would be the first for commercial deliveries, not food delivery. Medical delivery has already been “a thing” in developing countries, and we’re starting to see it for organ deliveries here.
I don’t think the public trust is there yet and it won’t be there until the public sees excellent improvements with noise and privacy concerns in particular.
The civilian drone industry is noted to be developing quicker. Why are UAVs so popular between civilians? What is the reason for all the buzz?
I believed that it was commercial applications that were growing faster recently. However, in the case of the civilian drone market, the most obvious attraction would be aerial filming and photography.
I think the excitement comes from everyday consumers gaining access to tech that was previously out of their reach.
It’s a content-driven environment that we live in and drones are now cheap enough and easy enough to operate for many more people.
As for events, of course, I would say our past demo with Insomnia Cookies on the Brown University Main Green was a very memorable experience.
We are on the move of planning out our next series of drone delivery demos, and they will be even more exciting.
What advice do you give new drone pilots on getting the most from their investment?
Assuming that these new drone operators are for aerial filming, I would be extra careful when you’re doing pre-flight planning.
It may be common sense, but never assume that flying back from a mission/waypoint takes the same amount of energy.
It’s also important to know when you’re flying with or against the wind. At the moment, I would recommend the Mavic Air as a starter drone.
What advances on drone technology you are excited about?
I was quite impressed by Amazon’s new aircraft design. Parachute systems are becoming better, making it easier to obtain waivers to fly over people or BVLOS.
I’m curious how sense-and-avoid technology will change in the next few years. More drones lead to more crowded airspace so that sense-and-avoid systems will be crucial.
Why do drone pilots should insure their drones? What are a few of the possible risks of flying an uninsured UAV?
You will find many variables that could put the aircraft at risk, many of which most operators won’t be able to foresee. Insuring the UAV protects both the operator and bystanders. Responsible operation is of utmost importance.
When you are not on behind the UAVs, where could we locate you?
Back in college, I was also pretty involved in organizing nightlife events. I ran an event promotion company and sold lots of tickets through sororities, frats, teams.
It was quite a hassle to handle all those tickets sold through promoters, so I designed a ticketing system that is now Isotope Ticketing.
For anyone curious about how to buy tickets for our next series of drone delivery demos, we have a pretty close-knit ticketing partner.