By Amy Brundeen
Drone deliveries of foods and medications are being piloted across the country, including in North Texas. Packages of all types will be dropped at local residences soon. Researchers with UNT's Center for Integrated Intelligent Mobility Systems (CIIMS) are working with NASA to address some of the challenges to widespread adoption of these innovations.
"The way we transport people and transport goods is going to be fundamentally changed by these technologies," says Terry Pohlen, senior associate dean of the G. Brint Ryan College of Business, director of UNT's Jim McNatt Institute for Logistics Research and co-director of CIIMS.
He compares the change to the turn of the last century when automobiles went from curiosities to a new way of transportation for the masses.
"In pictures of New York City, within just a matter of five years, you went from seeing all horse drawn carriages and one Model T to one only one horse and a whole bunch of Model Ts," Pohlen says. "That transformation occurred within a very short period of time. Likewise, we are going to see a radical transformation. In the near future, you're going to see far fewer trucks delivering purchases, but instead packages will be delivered right to your home with a drone."
A century ago, Henry Ford invented the assembly line to meet the demand for automobiles. Today, manufacturers are looking to meet the emerging demand for advanced air mobility – primarily drones that will carry freight. To meet that demand, it is crucial to address the supply-chain logistics and associated workforce needs.
As a way to address the need for a high-volume manufacturing and supply chain ecosystem in aerospace, NASA recently awarded grants to four universities through the Minority University Research and Education Project to help develop new and diverse ecosystem networks. As a minority-serving institution, UNT engineering and logistics researchers will receive a three-year $746,000 grant for a proposal to assist U.S. aerospace and defense entities' manufacturing supply chains, particularly focusing on electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) vehicles and unmanned aerial systems manufacturing.
In addition, the project aims to increase diversity and inclusion in the workforce through integrated learning experiences in manufacturing and supply chain education, and enabling professional development with associate, undergraduate and graduate degrees and certificates. A final aim of the MUREP High-Volume project is to increase interest in related entrepreneurial opportunities.
"One of the deliverables is finding the gaps in the supply chain and figuring out how to take care of them. We need to develop steady strategies to support high-volume manufacturing – understanding these gaps in the largest supply chains," says, Kamesh Namuduri, professor of electrical engineering and principal investigator on the project. "Another is an educated workforce. Also, we have to come up with a strategy to commercialize some of the things we come up with."
One way to analyze supply chains is to assess their complexity and resilience. To a point, the more complex the supply chain, the more resilient it can be because resources come from multiple sources. But that complexity also can be a problem, as evidenced by how the recent pandemic has affected supply chains. Aerospace supply chains can be especially complex, in part because of the increased safety and security concerns.
"In aerospace manufacturing, there are tons of parts and suppliers that come together, and one unit that is going out," says Ila Manuj, associate professor of logistics and operations management in the G. Brint Ryan College of Business. "With high-volume manufacturing and customization, there are very large amounts of complexity both inbound and outbound. We're not just working with one or two variants; we're creating hundreds of variants."
The manufacturers that CIIMS are partnering with indicate that almost every drone will be customized to support a specific mission. One might be used for surveillance, another for infrastructure inspection, another for package delivery and another for defense applications.
NASA wants to address future problems with the supply chain needed for advanced aeronautics so that the U.S. can remain a leader in the industry. And UNT is working to firmly establish its place as a leader in advanced aeronautics. CIIMS was established in 2020 to bring together expertise across disciplines, including engineering and business, around intelligent mobility, which includes autonomous flight, ground vehicles, and the systems that will enable their deployment.
A key part of CIIMS is workforce development for the future. Students are increasingly coming to UNT to prepare for future careers related to autonomous transportation.
"The number one thing students walk in asking about is autonomous vehicles and autonomous flight," says Nandika D'Souza, associate dean for the College of Engineering. "The fact that UNT has so many degrees that provide the workforce for this area is extremely valuable."
The need for engineers in all disciplines to develop new drones, logistics professionals and licensed operators for drones will grow in coming years. In addition to NASA partnerships and collaboration with local manufacturers who need a highly trained workforce, UNT is closely aligned with local high schools in North Texas that are training students for future STEM careers in this area.
"The governor of Texas has extended North Central Texas Aerial Robotics Initiative funding because of the impact on recruitment and retention," D'Souza says. "Texas is really ahead of the game on this. We're basically building pathways for Texas students to get undergraduate degrees at UNT. Education is clearly a harbinger of where interest is."