The sky’s the limit for a team of recent Virginia Tech engineering graduates who took drones to the next level. Christopher Graveline '22 and his dynamic team of 10 classmates from four engineering majors in the Interdisciplinary Senior Design Program built a system of autonomous drones to perform indoor package delivery. 

Sponsored by Lockheed Martin, these unmanned aerial vehicles will utilize free airspace in factories with crowded floors to more efficiently deliver parts across these large indoor facilities. 

Never before done, “these drones are at the cutting edge of research and development,” said Graveline. 

Throughout the project, the team took advantage of resources available at the University Libraries, specifically the Prototyping and Fusion studios that nurture creativity. “When our drones break, the Prototyping Studio has all the tools we need, such as soldering irons and hand tools, to perform quick repairs,” said Graveline. 

Max Ofsa, Prototyping Studio manager, guided the team as needed throughout the project. “Max just so happened to have completed a drone project during his undergrad, and he has been a fountain of knowledge as well as kindly letting us borrow RC transmitters and batteries for testing,” said Graveline. 

The University Libraries’ Fusion Studio was also a game-changer for the team, providing a centralized place for the students  to meet and collaborate. “You can find us there pretty much every day of the week,” said Graveline. 

The team valued the expertise of Sara Sweeney Bear, Fusion Studio manager. “Sara is a great communicator and comes from a non-engineering background, so her perspective is crucial when running through our presentations with her.

"The library staff have been great mentors throughout the whole process,” said Graveline. 

Because the project pushed the boundaries of the technology readiness level, team members replied on engineering calculations, simulation, and good old trial and error to navigate many of the challenges they faced throughout the year. “If we listed all the challenges we encountered throughout this project, this article would be far too long for anyone to read,” said Graveline. 

One surprise the team discovered was the level of vibration created by the drones during takeoff. “It made it more difficult than expected to pick up the boxes, which delayed our project,” said Graveline. “Bigger propellers were able to fix that issue.”

Additionally, flying indoors came with its own set of challenges. Team members solved these problems with a one-of-a-kind magnetic pickup and dropoff mechanism that they were told could not be done. “This is something that we are particularly proud of, and we proved our class professors wrong when they worked successfully,” said Graveline. 

Graveline said the team has loved being a part of the Interdisciplinary Senior Design Program and recommends it for any rising senior in the College of Engineering  to consider this senior design alternative. “We learned so much and really benefited from the interactions with Professors Andrea L’Afflitto, Robin Queen, and David Gray along with the excellent library expertise, guidance, tools, and resources,” said Graveline.

It has been exhilarating to work on a project that is on the cutting edge of the industry, said Graveline. “Much of what we’re trying to do is not currently available on the market and developing a totally new product has been an incredible experience.” 

“This product has the potential to create a new market for indoor drone delivery systems that doesn’t yet exist,” said Graveline. “We’re reaching new heights.”