DHL successfully integrate drone into their supply chain.
A copter-based ‘last mile’ delivery system has been tested by DHL which is capable of fully automated loading and offloading at special ‘Packstations’. This is their ‘Parcelcopter’ drone approaching a delivery:
Much has recently been written in the press about the use of autonomous aerial delivery platforms, yet the horse had long since bolted and the stable door remains open with regard to this topic.
Man’s need to extend his reach, mainly for communications purposes, goes way back. Believed to have originated with the ancient Persians, but certainly in use by the Romans, autonomous aerial delivery platforms were known to have been used by Caesar to send dispatches during the war with Gaul. Their use continues to this day, a sport for many, and in Eastern India, is used by emergency services for reliable deliveries during natural disasters. In 1990, albeit as a joke, these platforms were used to carry internet protocol data. Suffering from both high latency and high packet loss, it is unlikely to enter widespread service.
The systems in use have a simple magnetoreceptor guidance system. It takes a long time to input the desired end point, as such a central hub is usually employed, all deliveries are made to this point and may be further disseminated by more conventional means.
All lift and control surfaces are not only variable geometry, but independently so. This configurable airframe allows the platform to perform efficiently within and throughout multiple overlapping performance envelopes, it can go from being super high performance, to a long range cruising glider, and back again without external modification.
There is no ‘kill switch’ but provided that the central hub is ‘home’, the return to home function has proven very reliable over time. Collision avoidance is undertaken by stereoscopic optical sensors, this combined with low weight and excellent maneuverability means that collisions with manned craft occupying the same airspace are rare.
Provided that fuel and fluid levels are topped-up, maintenance issues are rare. Minor issues are essentially self-repairing, more extensive damage repair is conducted by specialists in the field, permanent damage may result in the unit being retasked to less demanding work, or removed from the line and retired. Payload is severely limited, usually to small amounts of analogue data – but if this is sufficient, the high speed and reliability of the Carrier Pigeon Mark One is, as yet, unmatched in the mechanical world.
We’ve been hearing for a long time now that drones would be the next step forward in our deepening love affair with distance shopping. DHL recently announced that they had successfully tested a drone for ‘last mile’ delivery, bringing that vision of the future one step nearer to realisation.
The Parcelcopter drone testing was conducted in the Bavarian village of Reit im Winkl. Known in the area as a snow magnet, this small community of around 2600 people could be ideal to demonstrate drone deliveries as a way to augment existing supply routes. Located in the mountains near the Austrian border, it is close to, but isolated from other towns. Having magnetically attracted all that snow, it’s likely that there are periods each year when it is difficult, or dangerous, to transport items that couldn’t be planned for in advance.
Looking like a small shipping container with a vending machine built in, deliveries were to and from a dedicated site known as a SkyPort. Details are sparse, but if this SkyPort is sited carefully, routine flights can be plotted and populated areas avoided.
Flight times during the tests were around 8 minutes and covered eight kilometres with a change in altitude of 1200 metres. A delivery van doing the same journey would take about 30 minutes. If you’ve ever spent time above the snow line, getting stuck behind a vehicle stopping and starting at multiple addresses, on icy roads, is something best avoided.
The bulk of test deliveries were either sporting goods or urgent medicines. Given the variable weather one might expect in this alpine region, extra layers of fleece and medical replenishment could both be considered lifesaving supplies. That is probably the point, the isolated location, and the fact that it is snowbound on occasion; make it the perfect site to get us used to the idea that, where it is risky for a human to deliver essential goods, a drone can be employed safely and reliably.
Once we’ve accepted that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with drone deliveries, and there are further successful tests, the service can be extended to fair weather use too. It could be utilised for premium services, perhaps a higher tariff for multiple deliveries through the day, even out of hours; let’s face it, that delivery van, on icy roads, after dark, becomes even more of a nuisance.
It’s not very likely that your bills will be delivered by drone anytime soon, so how does this take us forward, or change anything? In principle there is no reason that aerial deliveries can’t work, and yet…
Drones have become frequent flyers in the news. Hardly a week goes by that an incident, usually involving an airliner, isn’t on the front page or the evening news. Most of these incidents were subsequently found to have been caused by birds, balloons, or in a recent case, a plastic bag.
There have been incidents of irresponsible, negligent, and plain criminal drone use, far too many. But remember, there have been incidents of irresponsible, negligent, and plain criminal car use too, and whilst there may be reason to want to reduce car use on environmental grounds, nobody blames the car for the driver being drunk.
Birds have always been a considered a hazard while flying, yet statistics show that there is one death per billion hours of flight, yes that is billion with a B. As we have seen, birds have a long and storied history as the first airmail carriers, yet little regard was paid to the safety of the pigeons when manned aircraft began to take over their airspace.
We mustn’t forget that that one death is sad. Work should be done to reduce, or eliminate, even this small risk, but for perspective: in 2013 there were 4,864 preventable deaths from choking on food in the US. Food remains legal in all 50 states.
So, let us wreak our wrath on balloons and plastic bags. That might help, well, maybe a tiny bit. But, not one balloon or plastic bag has ever been convicted of endangering an airliner, not one has been shown to be culpable, neither in civil court, nor at a crash investigation, so at whose feet do we lay the blame?
That is possibly the cornerstone to this debate. The modern civilian drone is new to us. We have had no evolutionary coexistence with them. They have, since they were introduced, pretty much worked and, irresponsible flying notwithstanding, there have been few incidents, and no disasters.
We have precedent that the concept is good, we lack precedent for who to blame, and who to invoice, should there be a major crash. Without a Titanic or a Hindenburg to define the processes for us, we do not find it easy to trust the drone. We need an epic fail to give dimension to our imagination, no matter how bad these disasters are, without them we will always imagine worse. We seem to need things to be dangerous, so that we can follow a mandated series of improvements, and follow reams of policy and procedure so that we cannot deny our culpability before any ground-breaking technology is accepted.
Perhaps DHL’s work, and what seems like the perfect site for it, will show that a carefully thought out and monitored plan, with small incremental extensions, can implement lessons learned from millennia of pigeon success, and centuries of human hubris sending ships to the bottom.