DHL begins drone delivery of parcels by ‘parcelcopter’
World’s leading logistic company DHL begins its first autonomous parcel deliveries of medicines and other urgently needed goods by “parcelcopter”, the DHL drone, to Juist, a car-free German island in the North Sea with a population of about 1,700 people. The unique pilot programme has been authorized in Europe and the initial operations by parcelcopter will be for research purposes. This research project represents the first and only time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot's field of vision in a real-life mission. By taking this step, DHL Parcel has moved to the next phase of the parcelcopter research project it launched in December 2013. Since its maiden flight last December, the DHL parcelcopter has been modified to perform this specific type of mission. The research team optimized such aspects as flight duration, flight range and speed to address the special challenges posed by the wind and marine-weather conditions of the North Sea. "Our DHL parcelcopter 2.0 is already one of the safest and most reliable flight systems in its class that meets the requirements needed to fulfill such a mission," said Jürgen Gerdes, CEO of Deutsche Post DHL's Post – eCommerce, Parcel Division, in a press statement. "We are proud that this additional service can create added value for the residents of and visitors to the island of Juist and are pleased with the support we have received from the involved communities and agencies." The technical innovations of the DHL parcelcopter include extended flight duration and range: The flight route to the island of Juist is roughly 12 kilometers. According to the company, the flight will be completely automated for the first time. This means that a pilot does not have to take any action at all during any phase of the flight. For safety reasons and in compliance with the requirements set by the responsible agencies, the DHL parcelcopter will be constantly monitored during the flight by a mobile ground station in Norddeich so that manual action can be immediately taken in real time if a malfunction or emergency occurs. The ground station will also maintain constant contact with air traffic controllers. Flying under 50 meters to avoid entering regulated air traffic corridors, the drone takes a fully automated route to a dedicated landing area on Juist. “From there,” the company says, “a DHL courier will then deliver the goods to the recipient. To optimally secure the goods during transport, DHL Parcel developed a special air-transport container that is extremely lightweight as well as weather- and waterproof.” The parcelcopter can travel up to 18 meters per second at a height of 50 meters depending on wind speed. It has a total weight of below five kilogrammes and can carry a load of up to 1.2 kg. The quadrocopter is powered by four identical fixed pitch propellers and can be steered in any direction by adjusting the speed of the individual power units, DHL said. DHL has partnered with two research and development organizations- the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at RWTH Aachen University and Microdrones. "With the DHL parcelcopter, an unmanned aircraft operating outside the controller's field of vision will perform deliveries for the first time in a real-world mission. Without the extremely high level of willingness to innovate and to find solutions exhibited by the involved agencies, communities and the Wattenmeer administrative unit of Lower Saxony, such a project would not be possible," Gerdes emphasized. However, it is said that the company has no specific plans to use the DHL parcelcopter in normal parcel delivery operations. The research project will test and evaluate the possibilities of such delivery methods to assess its technical feasibility and economic viability to deliver urgently needed goods to thinly populated or remote areas or in emergencies as an option in the future. And if the test programme goes well, DHL says it could use the parcelcopter to make urgent deliveries to other areas that are “geographically difficult to access”. Besides DHL, Google and Amazon are already testing the use of drones for deliveries. Amazon last year revealed its plans to use drones to deliver packages and in April this year it said that it was working on its seventh-generation prototype.