Corvus: Urban Air Mobility Solutions for Package Delivery; Why the Cell Phone’s Social Construction Casts Drone Delivery into Uncertainty

Britos, Alejandro, School of Engineering and Applied Science, University of Virginia
Neeley, Kathryn, University of Virginia
McDaniel, James, EN-Mech/Aero Engr Dept, University of Virginia

In my technical project I worked on the development of a drone package delivery system.
This included designing the drone itself along with the necessary ground systems and business
case to support the concept’s viability. To supplement this effort, my STS research paper focused
on analyzing the potential social construction of this technology in rural and urban areas and
comparing it that of the cell phone. This research is beneficial to the technical project because it
analyzes the sociotechnical relationships and factors that are important to engineering practice.
As part of NASA’s 2019-2020 University Design Challenge, my team were tasked with
engineering a drone capable of meeting several strenuous design requirements. This includes
creating a drone that is capable of fully autonomous delivery of packages weighing up to 5
pounds for a roundtrip distance of 20 miles in under 20 minutes. To meet these requirements, my
technical group designed a tandem dual tilt-wing drone that can accomplish both vertical take-off
and landing as well as horizontal flight configurations. This gives the drone the agility needed to
delivery packages in confined urban areas but also the speed to get to its destination faster than
most available methods.
Upon researching the attitudes of the stakeholders involved in drone delivery, I
uncovered that there exist disagreements between the parities which threaten the success of the
technology. Therefore, I focused my STS research on the potential social construction of drone
delivery to see if I could gain insights about the viability of the system. More specifically, social
construction refers to how the development or implementation of a technology is influenced by
social factors like culture. To do this analysis, I used Leonardi and Hudson’s study on the social
construction of the cell phone across three cultures as an analytical framework. Using this study
and considering the relative success of the cellphone, I initially derived the claim that, if the
drone delivery can have a similar social construction to that of the cellphone, then its
implementation is more viable. However, this claim was not supported by the results as it was
found that drone delivery does not create common motivations for adoption between the
stakeholders. Therefore, ultimately this study instead highlights the importance of resolving
stakeholder disagreements.
Together these projects provide a more holistic sociotechnical view of drone delivery
than either would alone. The STS research supplements the efforts of the technical project by
considering the social factors and relationships that are crucial to understanding the potential
success of drone delivery. This has been an important lesson for my understanding of
engineering practice as these projects together have shown that both technical and social aspects
must be considered when designing a technology. Furthermore, as engineers we are often
entrenched in our own technical aspirations or viewpoints that we fail to considered where other
factors may be important. Therefore, the symbiotic relationship displayed by these projects in
sociotechnical analysis encourages more diverse collaboration among disciplines as it provides
for a more holistic solution of engineering problems.

BS (Bachelor of Science)
Autonomous, Drone, Delivery, Last-mile, Social Construction

School of Engineering and Applied Science
Bachelor of Science in Aerospace Engineering
Technical Advisor: James C McDaniel
STS Advisor: Kathryn A Neeley
Technical Team Members: Alejandro Britos, Brett Brunsink, Daniel Choi, Derrick Vin Vilankin Devairakkam, Gino Giansante, Philip Hays, Joseff Medina, Timo Mather, David Normansell, JD Parker, Justin Robinson. Walker Smith, and Cristhian Vasquez.

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