How can food banks get canned goods, pasta, and other critical pantry staples to disadvantaged communities or individuals with mobility challenges without relying on delivery vehicles that idle at the curb during each drop off? With the help of a $780,182 U.S. Department of Energy grant, the City of Arlington will conduct an innovative pilot program to test the efficiency and scalability of using autonomous, electric delivery vehicles to reduce greenhouse gas emissions while serving residents in need.
Arlington is partnering with Tarrant Area Food Bank, the University of Texas at Arlington (UTA), the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG), Dallas-Fort Worth Clean Cities Coalition (hosted at the NCTCOG), Airspace Link, Aerialoop, and Clevon to implement the Multimodal Delivery Project through 2025. The goal of this two-year study is to test and evaluate the use of no-emission or low-emission drones and four-wheeled robots that are smaller than cars to deliver essential food items to individuals who are mobility challenged, historically disadvantaged, or lack a reliable means of transportation.
“As transportation technology advances, so does the potential to make positive changes in the way we connect people with goods and services. Using electric drones and ground delivery robots to provide ‘last-mile’ delivery services can be a more environmentally friendly alternative to traditional delivery vehicles,” said Alicia Winkelblech, the City of Arlington’s transportation director. “As a national leader in innovative transportation solutions, we are honored to partner with these autonomous delivery vehicle industry experts and other community leaders to research and share whether this technology is a viable way to serve the public while reducing greenhouse gases.”
Grocery Deliveries by Ground and Air
An estimated 300 boxes of food will be delivered to Tarrant Area Food Bank clients living in East Arlington during the study. These deliveries will be made by Aerialoop’s ALT6-4 VTOL Delivery Drone, a 6-foot-long battery powered drone that can carry nearly nine pounds, and Clevon’s autonomous delivery robot, CLEVON 1, equipped with a spacious cargo bay that clients can unlock with a code to access their delivery. Airspace Link’s AirHub® Portal will be used to provide the data and digital infrastructure needed for planning, decision-making, and operations, including detailed ground and air analysis that will help drone operators determine take-off, landing, and delivery routes. Routes will be developed to avoid flying over residential areas and high-traffic roadways, and onboard sensors will use data only for navigation purposes.
The City plans to host a showcase, where the public can see the technology and learn more about the study prior to the first deliveries, next spring.
“Airspace Link is thrilled to collaborate with the City of Arlington and our project partners to pioneer cutting-edge delivery solutions and foster industry partnerships. Combining the expertise of a drone management provider, a drone operator, and a ground delivery robot carrier, this partnership represents a groundbreaking approach to low-emission delivery methods. This collaboration will pave the way for future innovative initiatives in the region,” said Michael Healander, Airspace Link’s Co-Founder and CEO. “Airspace Link is honored to have the opportunity to work closely with the Tarrant Area Food Bank to showcase how community-informed planning, routing, and assessment can effectively aid those in need while reducing environmental impact.”
Clevon’s autonomous delivery robot is designed to make food distribution both efficient and eco-friendly, said Meelis Anton, COO of Clevon.
“It’s inspiring to see our technology help bring essential goods to those in need, while also caring for the environment. This project not only showcases innovation in logistics but also reinforces our commitment to creating solutions that support community well-being and environmental sustainability,” Anton said.
Aerialoop is looking forward to bringing to Arlington the experience it has gained from operating commercial, beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) and autonomous network routes in multiple Latin American countries, said COO and Co-founder Santiago Barrera.
“With over 14,000 commercial flights and a current average of 1,000 packages delivered per week in our Quito network, we see in this project the perfect opportunity to demonstrate the efficiency and scalability of drones for middle mile logistics,” Barrera said.
During the first year, the project team will conduct community outreach, determine the locations for the deliveries, develop a concept of operations plan, and conduct the first of two short demonstrations. Each demonstration will last between two and four weeks to test drone and autonomous delivery vehicle technology and performance delivering packages to homes. In the second year of the study, the first demonstration will be analyzed, a second demonstration will be conducted, and final analysis, reporting, and sharing of lessons learned will be completed.
“The rapidly growing Dallas-Fort Worth region requires innovative mobility solutions to enhance the movement of people, goods, and critical services, while also reducing the environmental impact and energy footprint of transportation. We are excited to collaborate with the City of Arlington and project partners to explore how autonomous air and ground vehicles can address regional challenges effectively,” said Ernest Huffman, North Central Texas Council of Governments program manager, aviation planning and education.
The University of Texas at Arlington’s Institute of Urban Studies (IUS) will assist in engaging potential participants and the broader public within the study area to help determine the preferred delivery modalities. Graduate students in the IUS and graduate students under the direction of Dr. Yan Wan, Distinguished University Professor in the Electrical Engineering Department, will conduct community outreach and gather public input to help inform travel routes, delivery areas, and other key aspects of the overall demonstration project. They will assist the project team in reporting project outcomes, participant experiences, and implications for further efforts.
“The project is a perfect example of the institute fulfilling its mission. In particular, the interdisciplinary efforts and community engagement employed in helping underserved populations in the City of Arlington are noteworthy. I look forward to seeing the outcome and impact of the project,” said Ming-Han Li, Dean of UTA’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs.
Anticipated benefits from the project include knowledge that could help scale similar delivery services to reduce the number of vehicle miles traveled, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and improve overall efficiencies in delivery and transportation systems. Lessons learned from this project in Arlington will be shared widely to help other communities seeking similar benefits.
“We worked very closely with the City of Arlington during COVID, a time we both innovated quickly to meet soaring hunger in the city,” said Stephen Raeside, Chief External Affairs Officer at Tarrant Area Food Bank. “Emergency distributions feeding up to 10,000 families at Arlington sports stadiums changed our distribution model, but also made us consider how we could remain nimble and agile by utilizing new technology to meet the daily needs of struggling Arlington families.”
The City of Arlington was among 45 recipients nationwide selected by the Department of Energy’s Vehicle Technologies Office competitive grant program, which provides funding to advance research, development, demonstration, and deployment of projects that reduce greenhouse gas emissions in the transportation sector. The total project cost is estimated at $1.6 million, nearly half of which is grant funded. The required local match will come from contributions from all project partners through in-kind staff time and the use of equipment.