When Amazon first announced its PrimeAir drone delivery service, we were skeptical. And we are still skeptical. Google's announcement of Project Wing did very little to reduce our skepticism about delivery drones operating in urban, densely-populated areas (where people want to receive packages quickly). If anything, it made us more skeptical, since what is apparently Google's best solution to the last 50 feet problem (dangling a package from fishing line) seems, uh, sketchy, at best.
We'd certainly love for Google or Amazon to make urban drone delivery work. We don't think they'll do it anytime soon, but we'd be ecstatic to be proven wrong by some ingenious implementation of technology. In the meantime, however, logistics company DHL has demonstrated one of the specific situations in which drone delivery is actually a good, realistic, achievable thing. Here's why.
Of all of the issues that we've talked about with urban drone delivery, there are two that are probably the most critical. The first is the fact that the drones would be flying in uncontrolled airspace. In urban environments, it's not necessarily safe to fly high up (because of air traffic) or low down (because of trees, buildings, power lines, and people with nets who want a free drone). The second issue involves the final stage when the delivery actually happens. Once a drone gets to its destination, you're going to have even more obstacles to deal with, plus people or animals who might not have the sense to stay away from your drone as it makes the delivery.
So, okay, let's just forget about urban areas for drone delivery for the moment (although population density probably makes it the most potentially lucrative). The delivery service that DHL has set up is an excellent example of where drone delivery can provide a valuable and safe service in a unique way.
What DHL is doing is a point-to-point delivery of small, important packages (like medication) between a harbor on mainland Germany and a small island called Juist about 12 kilometers off the German coast.
DHL's fully autonomous (including takeoff and landing) "parcelcopter" weighs about 5 kilograms, and can carry 1.2 kg of cargo in a lightweight pod slung underneath. At a top speed of 65 kilometers per hour, it'll be able to make the trip in about 15 to 30 minutes, depending on the weather.
This delivery service is not operational full time. Rather, it's active at certain times during the week and on weekends when the regular ferry service out to Juist isn't running. And for the moment, it's primarily for delivering medication and other urgent items, not whatever you just ordered from Amazon.
Now, let's talk about the two big issues that we brought up earlier with regards to urban drone delivery: airspace and delivery zones. DHL has gotten it all worked out:
In coordination with DFS Deutsche Flugsicherung GmbH, the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure has established a restricted flight area exclusively for this research project. In addition to the island of Juist and the city of Norden, the Wattenmeer national park administrative unit approved the parcelcopter flights.
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.
The parcelcopter will take off from the harbor in Norddeich. It will land at a launch pad and landing field on the island of Juist reserved specifically for the parcelcopter. From there, a DHL courier will then deliver the goods to the recipient.
Bam. The robot has dedicated clear airspace, a route free of obstacles, and takeoff and established safe takeoff and landing zones. In effect, its entire flight route is a semi-controlled environment, in which it can reliably move without having to worry about running into any obstacles short of birds or breaching whales. The robot is monitored by a human at all times, and if something does enter its flight path, that human will be notified and can take control of the drone.
Also, it's very clear that these drones aren't about dropping off a candy bar on your doorstep because you're too lazy to walk to the store and aren't willing to wait an hour or two for the German equivalent of Google Shopping Express. They're for important stuff, and they operate when and where there is no better alternative.
The last sentence of the press release shows that DHL really gets it:
To the extent that it is technically feasible and economically sensible, the use of parcelcopters to deliver urgently needed goods to thinly populated or remote areas or in emergencies is an interesting option for the future.
If we go back to Google's Project Wing, their demo (in rural Australia) is another situation in which drone delivery makes realistic sense. Presumably there'd be low aerial traffic between your source and destination (lots of space in rural Australia, apparently), and if the destinations are discrete and spread out, it might make sense to set up a landing zone in each one, especially if you're dealing with valuable cargo like medicine. And this is exactly what Matternet, a pioneer of delivery drones, has been trying to do in Bhutan: point to point delivery of medicine using drones in situations where drones are the delivery method that makes the most sense, or are the only delivery method possible.
Again, we want to emphasize that urban drone delivery would be fantastic if someone could get it to work. This is partially because drone delivery sounds cool, but also because it would mean that someone had solved all the technical problems and regulatory skyblocks. Our hope, though, is that the important kind of drone delivery (the kind that involves medicines and hard to reach areas and seems technologically feasible) becomes more of a focus than this luxury urban dream, and gets put into practice where it's needed and as soon as possible.
Evan Ackerman is a senior editor at IEEE Spectrum. Since 2007, he has written over 6,000 articles on robotics and technology. He has a degree in Martian geology and is excellent at playing bagpipes.