Those who live in an urban/suburban bubble might see drone delivery as a nifty way to receive pizzas. But for those in rural, geographically-remote areas, a successful drone delivery system could literally save lives. Consider someone who immediately needs medication, but lives in a mountainous region where the pass is snowed over. A drone can make a beeline for the destination without needing to wait for a snowplow, and altitude is no problem.
To make that solution a reality, not only the drone but the entire delivery system has to be designed. This week DHL announced they've done just that, and have completed three months of successful trials in the mountainous, snowy Reit im Winkl area in Bavaria, Germany.
The DHL Parcelcopter is intended primarily for situations that mesh poorly with established infrastructures or where standard delivery methods are overly lengthy. Locations not linked to the standard road network are one example. "Natural barriers" such as water or mountains are not an issue for the drone. The DHL Parcelcopter is thus seen as a tool for improving infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas, improving the lives of the inhabitants there.
DHL's drone delivery system consists of the aforementioned Parcelcopter, which isn't the tiny quadrotor most hobbyists are messing about with, but a tiltwing aircraft—think of the U.S. military's V-22 Osprey—that's 2.2 meters (over seven feet) long.
The Parcelcopter can carry 2kg (about 4.4 pounds) and can do 70 k.p.h. (about 43 m.p.h.).
The packages are not left exposed and hanging from the bottom of the craft, but are instead stored within its belly, protected from the elements.
The Parcelcopter doesn't exist in a vacuum, but docks within and travels back and forth between two Packstation/Skyports, trailer-sized structures that both house the vehicle and serve as customer drop-off/pick-up points for packages. It's something like Amazon Locker but the roof opens up and the drone flies in and out of it.
The packages are placed within a standardized container that the Parcelcopter can accept, and the process is largely automated. Here's what it looks like in action:
To give you an idea of what this means in practical terms:
[We focused on] delivery to an alpine region notable for its geographical and meteorological challenges. The first task was to master the rapidly changing weather conditions and severe temperature fluctuation in the test area. With that achieved, the DHL Parcelcopter then performed a series of flawless flights.
Each round trip from valley to plateau at roughly 1,200 meters above sea level covered eight kilometers of flight. The drone's cargo was typically either sporting goods or urgently needed medicines and it arrived at the Alm station within just eight minutes of take-off. The same trip by car takes more than 30 minutes during winter.
The Parcelcopter made 130 trips in total and the trial has been deemed a success. Next DHL will be analyzing the data gleaned and selecting another trial location.
Given that the previous trial location was oceanic—they successfully delivered packages and medicine to an island in the North Sea—we imagined the next location would be a desert environment. But a hint from a DHL executive suggests otherwise: "We have achieved a level of technical and procedural maturity," said Management Board Member Jürgen Gerdes, "to eventually allow for field trials in urban areas as well." You reckon they'll stoop to pizzas?
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