World’s first regular drone delivery service takes flight

For the first time ever, a regular delivery service will be undertaken by drone, marking the first step towards drone delivery becoming a standard replacement for traditional postal services.

Serving the German island of Juist in Europe’s North Sea, the drone will make several visits each week to drop off urgently required goods, such as medication.

The drone in question is the Parcelcopter 2.0, a creation of logistics giants DHL that the company are developing to augment their existing delivery services. This delivery service will serve as a research project for the company, enabling them to further refine the drone’s design.

After debuting Parcelcopter back in December, DHL has spent a lot of time beefing up its range, speed and durability in readiness for flights across the choppy North Sea.

The drone will be entirely automated throughout 12km route, making the journey the first time in Europe when an unmanned aircraft has operated outside of its controller’s field of vision in a non-testing environment.

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The service to Juist will run at key times throughout the week and weekend when traditional routes to the island – ferries and flights – are not scheduled to run.

Given the high costs of transporting essential goods to remote communities, the service could become a blueprint for serving island and other hard-to-access regions.

However, each region will require approval from local authorities; something that DHL had to work hard to achieve with Juist.

In order to get the flight off the ground, the system needed the establishment of a restricted flight area between Juist and the German city of Norden, as well as approval from the city and island authorities and the Wattenmeer national park, which is on the drone’s flight path.

If the service proves successful, Germany is likely to establish a more wide-reaching policy on drone delivery flights, with other countries in Europe set to follow.

However, how long it is before such a service makes its way to the USA, where drone regulations are far stricter, remains to be seen. Changes in US aviation rules to accommodate drones have so far been very minimal, and the country is likely to see intense lobbying from key business groups before any significant movement occurs.

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Although completely autonomous during flight, the drone’s journey will be at all times monitored from a mobile ground station in Noorden. This is in part to comply with flight regulations and to maintain contact with air traffic controllers, but also makes practical sense for such a young technology: if anything goes wrong the drone can be immediately switched to manual control and navigated to safety.

The Parcelcopter 2.0 is designed to autonomously take off and land, and a custom landing site has been designed and installed on the island of Juist. Departure from mainland Germany will occur in the harbour of the city of Noorden, keeping the travel time to an absolute minimum.

Given the conditions the drone will be flying over, keeping the cargo safe and dry is extremely important, so the Parcelcopter has been equipped with a weather and waterproof air transport container. This should keep all medications safe and ensure they arrive at their designation undamaged.

“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.”


Images courtesy of DHL.


Drones at Sea: Automated cargo ships to set sail by 2035

By 2035 the world’s cargo will be carried by 200m fully automated vessels operating entirely without an onboard human crew, according to researchers.

Carrying food and minerals, such ships will be safer, more environmentally friendly and cheaper to operate than current cargo vessels, according to members of MUNIN, a European Union-funded research project aiming to make unmanned cargo ships a reality.

“There aren’t many willing to believe it, but if the project partners succeed in overcoming the challenges we are currently working with, vessels such as this will in fact be safer than many of those on the high seas today”, said researcher Ørnulf Rødseth.

“Human error, solely or in part, is the cause of more than 75 per cent of today’s vessel accidents.”

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These ships would be operated from a central onshore control centre, with one person responsible for up to ten vessels, and would only need a 3-4Mbit broadband connection to ensure adequate communication.

The researchers say that much of the technology needed for autonomous vessels exists, but the real challenge is demonstrating their safety.

“The technology for electronic positioning, satellite communications and anti-collision measures already exists,” said Rødseth.

“Many vessels are also equipped with advanced sensor systems. It is one thing to have the technology, but quite another to bring it all together and demonstrate that it works well enough to satisfy the authorities and the industry.”

Maritime laws will need to be changed to enable unmanned vessels to be used, so a central focus will be proving the technology is at least as safe as current, manned vessels.

This is likely to involve initial voyages where the crew are onboard as a safety net but the autonomous system controls the vessel.

Most important will be the development and demonstration of a warning system to prevent ships colliding, which the researchers are confident can be achieved.

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Automated vessels do, however, create some unexpected issues that will need to be addressed.

A key concern is fuel: the heavy oil fuels used on current ships result in regular maintenance being needed, so an alternative fuel would have to be sought.

“Less expensive, liquid natural gas might be the answer here”, said Rødseth. “But this will involve designing the vessels from scratch”.

Not having humans onboard to perform maintenance will create what Rødseth describes as “our biggest challenge”, however such an issue could well be resolved with a team of maintenance bots – another technology that is seeing rapid development.

The vessels provide some clear cost savings, as they would remove the need to pay the wages of vast crews, as well as potential fuel savings. Whether the maritime industry will accept a technology that renders much of its workers unemployed, however, remains to be seen.