fb-pixel Skip to main content

It’s all about making efficient delivery drones

These stories and other coverage of Boston’s technology and biotech scene can be found at the globe’s new site, betaboston.com.

Depending on whom you ask, package delivery by drone is either looming large in our future or is off in the distance. While we wait, researchers at MIT are building the parts that will make delivery robots functional and efficient, including battery-swapping stations and algorithms that streamline the way the crafts will think.

Calculating a flight path to a delivery destination while staying fueled and bracing for air currents takes a lot of computing power, which is typically limited on a craft like a quadcopter, which is lifted by four rotors.


A new approach to computing these scenarios separates the various calculations, in this case location and “health” — whether a blade on the rotor is broken or if fuel is running low — explained Ali-akbar Agha-mohammadi, a post-doc at MIT’s Laboratory for Information and Decision Systems.

“We have broken the large problem into lots of small problems,” Agha-mohammadi said, and as a result they’ve decreased the computing power needed.

He and his colleagues are also engineering hardware. They have built charging stations that a quadcopter can land on to recharge or replace a battery, and electromagnets that can pick up packages.

The new algorithm has proved its effectiveness in a simulated drone system, and Agha-mohammadi will present the results at a conference in Chicago. He says the same underlying principle could apply to ground-based robots as well.

The next step, he says, is to test the quadcopters through the complete takeoff-recharge-deliver sequence in the lab.

Nidhi Subbaraman

Fancred raises $3 million to be online gathering for sports fans

Fancred, the Boston-based mobile and online sports fan hub, said it has received $3 million in funding from a group that includes new investor Breakaway Innovation Group as well as Atlas Ventures and Militello Capital, who participated in the firm’s $1.5 million seed round.


Fancred, which is a place to share and find news involving teams and players, received a huge bump from this summer’s World Cup, according to founder and chief executive Kash Razzaghi. The app has gained popularity among soccer fans through its partnership with English Premier League’s Liverpool Football Club, which led to wider adoption by fans of many other European soccer clubs.

“Sports talk and trash talk happen on Fancred,” Razzaghi said. “During live games and events, the activity is at its highest peak.”

But what he really believes sets Fancred apart is people documenting their lives as fans and serving as a “digital shoebox,” a place where a fan can keep pictures, news clippings, or ticket stubs.

The company’s biggest source of users continues to be college sports fans, particularly SEC football fans. The company has its roots in the SEC as Razzaghi was a student-athlete at Mississippi State. Fancred is going to be “doubling down” on connecting with more college fans. The firm has expanded coverage from 30 schools in the spring to 64 this fall.

The company plans to use the new funding to improve its product, grow the Fancred team, and make more strategic partnerships.

Linda Pizzuti Henry, managing director of the company that owns the Globe, was one of Fancred’s early investors.

These robots can prevent loss of jobs, firm says

The robots are not here for our jobs — at least not in manufacturing.

When robotics legend Rodney Brooks unveiled a human-like robot in 2012, claims followed that it was a bold step in the direction of replacing people with machines.


True, the robot — named Baxter — would exist to take manufacturing duties from humans. But Brooks contended from the start that the robot would not lead to lost jobs. On the contrary, he said: Baxter could be the salvation of many manufacturers and their workers, who would otherwise succumb to Chinese competition.

Plenty have still doubted.

But a year-and-a-half after Baxter’s commercial debut, manufacturers who have added the bot into the mix have not laid anyone off as a result, according to Brooks’s company, Rethink Robotics of Boston. The manufacturers are more competitive with Asia, too, and doing a larger amount of work in the United States than they otherwise could, Rethink chief executive Scott Eckert said.

“We’ve always said it would be the other way around” from the dire job predictions, Eckert said. “Now that I’ve got so many customers deploying these robots, I know it’s true.”

Brooks — who previously created iRobot’s robo-vacuum, Roomba — had good reason to make Baxter resemble a person. One of its key selling points is that humans can easily train the robot and work alongside it, because it does not need a safety cage (the robot’s array of sensors ensures it can’t harm human workers).

Baxter, which sells for $25,000, is so far having the hoped-for effect in terms of making US manufacturers competitive with China, Eckert said. For instance, the Rodon Group of Pennsylvania, a maker of plastic parts, has been able to win more contracts, he said.


“They can quote a lower cost structure because they have Baxter doing part of the work,” he said. “If you lose a couple bids to China, over time, pretty soon you can’t keep your company stable and the whole company disappears, and all the jobs with it. We can reverse that.”