DHL plans pilot drone project

DHL Parcel will soon launch a unique pilot project on the North Sea island of Juist: For the first time worldwide, medications and other urgently needed goods will be delivered to the island at certain times of the day by DHL parcelcopter, the company’s name for its drone.

This research project represents the first time in Europe that a flight by an unmanned aircraft will be operated outside of the pilot’s field of vision in a real-life mission. This is the next phase of the parcelcopter research project DHL Parcel launched in December 2013.

Working with its two research and development partners, the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at RWTH Aachen University and Microdrones GmbH, DHL Parcel has completed a comprehensive consultation and approval process led by Lower Saxony’s Ministry for Economics, Labor and Transport. 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.

Since its maiden flight last December, the DHL parcelcopter has been modified to perform this specific type of mission. The research team optimized such aspects as flight duration, flight range and speed to address the special challenges posed by the wind and marine-weather conditions of the North Sea.

“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.”

The technical innovations of the DHL parcelcopter include extended flight duration and range: The flight route to the island of Juist is roughly 12 kilometers. The flight will be completely automated for the first time. This means that a pilot does not have to take any action at all during any phase of the flight. 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.

To ensure that the DHL parcelcopter operates reliably, flies safely and always lands at the right location, an autopilot with automated takeoff and landing functions was developed. DHL says the system is robust and reliable, and has been extensively tested. At an altitude of 50 meters, the parcelcopter can travel up to 18 meters per second depending on wind speed. It will primarily transport medications from the mainland to the island of Juist at certain times during the week and on weekends. This delivery option will focus on times when such alternatives as ferries and flights are not available.

“With the DHL parcelcopter, an unmanned aircraft operating outside the controller’s field of vision will perform deliveries for the first time in a real-world mission,” Gerdes said.

A key development partner is Microdrones GmbH, one of the leading providers of automated copters. It has been involved in the project from the very beginning and developed the DHL parcelcopter on the basis of one of its flight platforms.

Currently, there are no specific plans to use the DHL parcelcopter in normal parcel delivery operations. This phase of the research project will test and evaluate the possibilities of such delivery methods.

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