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.
Rapid response from the air: medicines successfully delivered using a parcel drone in East Africa
Revolutionising the delivery of medicines to remote areas using drones - the pilot project Deliver Future proves that it's not science fiction. Three experts in their respective fields are making it happen: DHL, the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) GmbH on behalf of the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) and the German drone manufacturer Wingcopter.
Over a six-month period, they successfully tested the delivery of medicines using a drone to an island in Lake Victoria. During the trials, the autonomous DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 completed the 60 km flight from the mainland to the island in 40 minutes on average. A total of 2,200 km were flown and roughly 2,000 flight minutes recorded during the pilot project.
Stages of development of the Parcelcopter
The DHL Parcelcopter took off on its maiden flight over the Rhine and landed in the Rheinaue Park in front of Deutsche Post DHL Group headquarters in Bonn. During a week-long test phase in December 2013, company employees could order medicines from a partner pharmacy on the other side of the Rhine; the DHL Parcelcopter delivered the ordered medicine just a short while later.
The route covered a distance of about one kilometer – still within visual range. The DHL Parcelcopter was manually controlled by a pilot, allowing initial insights to be gained about flight characteristics and reliability in different wind and weather conditions. The tests demonstrated that the delivery of medication is a worthwhile and useful application of this technology.
DHL Parcel launched an internationally unique pilot project on the North Sea island of Juist in 2014. In urgent cases, the DHL Parcelcopter supplied island residents with urgently needed medication. Transport flights over a distance of approximately 12 kilometers were carried out from September to December 2014 to provide express and emergency service from the mainland to the island, especially at times when neither regular ferry nor air service was available. In this way, the DHL Parcelcopter was able to ensure supplies for the North Sea island’s 1,500 residents.
After its maiden flight in December 2013, the DHL Parcelcopter’s capabilities were enhanced specifically with this new application in mind. Its flight duration, range and speed were optimized to meet the special challenges posed by wind and weather on the North Sea coast. The flights were carried out completely autonomously for the first time, with no intervention by the pilot needed during any phase of the flight. The autopilot was developed with automatic takeoff and landing functionality, so the DHL Parcelcopter always had safe and reliable flights and landings.
Flights were from Norddeich to Juist, using a designated Parcelcopter takeoff and landing site on the coastline. The goods dropped off there were picked up by a DHL courier and transported to their recipients. All told, the Parcelcopter completed 40 flights during the research period, and was even able to provide assistance in two emergencies.
Between January and March 2016, DHL Parcel successfully concluded a three-month test of its third Parcelcopter generation in the Bavarian community of Reit im Winkl. It represents the first time worldwide that a parcel service provider has directly integrated a parcelcopter logistically into its delivery chain. Private customers in Reit im Winkl and up on the Winklmoosalm plateau were invited to test out the specially developed Packstations, dubbed the Parcelcopter Skyport. During the three month trial period, they could simply insert their shipments into the Skyport to initiate automated shipment and delivery per Parcelcopter. A total of 130 autonomous loading and offloading cycles were ultimately performed.
As part of the trial, the technically upgraded vehicle was able to deal with heavier loads, longer distances and 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.