Arlington Gets $780K Grant To Research Drone & Robot Delivery From Food Banks

With the help of the U.S. Department of Energy grant, the city of Arlington said it will conduct an innovative pilot program to test the efficiency and scalability of using autonomous, electric drone and robot delivery vehicles. The goal: Reduce greenhouse gas emissions while serving residents in need.

Across the nation, many people in disadvantaged communities or with mobility challenges are looking for ways to get what they need from food banks via delivery vehicles—all the necessities, including canned goods, pasta, and other critical pantry staples.

Those delivery vehicles often idle at the curb during each drop off, emitting greenhouse emissions into the environment. What can be done to lessen that impact?

With the help of a $780,182 U.S. Department of Energy grant, the city of Arlington said it will conduct the Multimodal Delivery Project, 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.

The city is partnering with the Tarrant Area Food Bank, UT Arlington, 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 project through 2025.

Testing the use of drones and four-wheeled robots

The city said the goal of the 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 persons 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,” Alicia Winkelblech, the city of Arlington’s transportation director, said in a statement.

“As a national leader in innovative transportation solutions, we’re 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,” Winkelblech added.

Autonomous deliveries to Tarrant Area Food Bank clients

The city said that an estimated 300 boxes of food will be delivered to Tarrant Area Food Bank clients living in East Arlington during the study.

The 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.

Clevon, an Estonia-based global autonomous delivery innovator, moved its U.S. headquarters to Fort Worth’s AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone in 2022, and made its first robot delivery in the area last December.

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, the city said. Planners said that routes will be formulated to avoid flying over residential areas and high-traffic roadways, and onboard sensors will use data only for navigation purposes.

The city of Arlington said it plans to host a showcase next spring for the public to see the technology and learn more about the study before the first deliveries.

“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,” Michael Healander, Airspace Link’s co-founder and CEO, said in a statement. “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.”

“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,” Healander added.

Efficient, eco-friendly deliveries

Clevon CEO Meelis Anton said the company’s autonomous delivery robot is designed to make food distribution both efficient and eco-friendly.

“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 COO and co-founder Santiago Barrera said that 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.

“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 added.

Study will demonstrate autonomous deliveries in underserved communities

The city said that during the first year of the study, 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.

It said that 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’re excited to collaborate with the city of Arlington and project partners to explore how autonomous air and ground vehicles can address regional challenges effectively,” Ernest Huffman, NCTCOG program manager, aviation planning and education, said in a statement.

The Institute of Urban Studies at the University of Texas at Arlington will assist in engaging potential participants and the broader public within the study area to help determine the preferred delivery modalities, the city said. 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 city said.

“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,” Ming-Han Li, dean of UTA’s College of Architecture, Planning and Public Affairs, said in a statement.

The project’s potential

A key benefit to the study is that the findings 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, the city said. Lessons learned from this project in Arlington will be shared widely to help other communities seeking similar solutions.

“We worked very closely with the City of Arlington during COVID, a time we both innovated quickly to meet soaring hunger in the city,” Stephen Raeside, chief external affairs officer at Tarrant Area Food Bank, said in a statement. “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 said it was one of 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 project’s total cost is estimated at $1.6 million, roughly half of which is grant funded. The city said that the required local match will come from contributions from all project partners via in-kind staff time and the use of equipment.

Get on the list.
Dallas Innovates, every day.

Sign up to keep your eye on what’s new and next in Dallas-Fort Worth, every day.

One quick signup, and you’re done.  

R E A D   N E X T

  • Don't miss your chance to get our biggest-ever Dallas Innovates magazine. Request a complimentary copy of the once-a-year limited edition now.

  • Bank of America has donated nearly $4 million to North Texas nonprofits this year, including local food banks and two 2022 Bank of America Neighborhood Builder® awardees.

  • Tarleton State University received the go-ahead for a new biotechnology institute as part of Texas A&M-Fort Worth's burgeoning downtown research campus. Approved in mid-August by the Texas A&M University System Board of Regents, the biotech institute is situated in one of the nation's fastest-growing life sciences hubs. "More than 5,000 biotechnology manufacturing and research and development firms — think Novartis, Alcon, AstraZeneca — call Texas home," according to the university. And DFW now ranks seventh in the U.S. for life science and biotech jobs.  The Tarleton State Biotechnology Institute will focus on discovery and innovation in bioinformatics and computational modeling.…

  • Michigan-based RoboTire uses "state-of-the-art robotics and advanced algorithms" to change a vehicle's tires in a fraction of the time it takes humans to do it, "reducing an hour-long experience to under 25 minutes while maintaining the highest levels of safety." The Arlington location is the second of Discount Tire's 1,100 stores to implement the system. And it's not a coincidence—Discount Tire is a RoboTire investor.

  • Awarded to 101 community-based organizations across the state—including many in North Texas—the Blue Impact grants focus on health care access and target impacts of socio-economic and social determinants of health.