Courier service DHL becomes first to use commercial drones

26 Sep 2014


Germany-based delivery giant DHL has stolen a march in drone-based delivery over technology-based companies like Amazon and Google, having become the first to use drones to make deliveries, including sending medication to a North Sea island

While several other firms have demonstrated drone-delivery prototypes, DHL is about to become the first to bring it to market.

DHL today announced a regular drone delivery service for the first time, nine months after it launched its ''parcelcopter'' research project in December 2013.

To begin with, the service will use an autonomous quadcopter to deliver small parcels to the German island of Juist, a sandbar island 12 km into the North Sea from the German coast, with a small population of 2,000 people. Deliveries will include medication and other goods that may be ''urgently needed''.

Flying below 50 metres 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.''

There are still hitches to be addressed. Although the flight is automated, the 'parcelcopter' will be ''constantly monitored'' by a ground station on the German mainland, for safety and to ensure compliance with the nation's regulations. The ground station will also liaise with air traffic control.

The company is taking orders for the parcelcopter's regular flights, which islanders can place at the island's pharmacy. The scheduled flights will focus on times when conventional ways of delivering packaged, such as ferries and manned flights, are not available.

''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.

''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.''

Rules for autonomous vehicles differ in jurisdictions around the world, but in the UK DHL would have a hard time institution the same project. British rules laid out by the Civil Aviation Authority limit unmanned vehicles to operating at least 50m from a building or person, and always within sight of an operator.

As such, fully autonomous vehicles such as the parcelcopter aren't legal to fly in the UK, although a CAA spokesman told The Guardian in July that ''the line-of-sight provision could go away some time in the future when we see a device able to make decisions about avoiding whatever objects are out there''.

DHL's scheme is similar in practice to that detailed by Amazon - a small rotary-blade copter, carrying packages to and from locations which it delivers by landing. But in finding the niche in Juist, the company has overcome several of the difficulties that Amazon faces in launching its own service: the copters do not have to navigate complex urban and suburban environments, nor do they have to deal with the possibility of vandalism or theft once they land.

Google, with its own prototype drone delivery service, has taken a different tack. Using a fixed-wing aircraft, the drone can fly further, faster; and it doesn't land at all to deliver the package, instead lowering the items on a tether while it hovers.

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