There has been a lot of talk about the Amazon drone recently, but it is the logistics service provider DHL that has now launched a pilot project for delivering goods by drone. Currently just for research purposes, medication is being flown to a pharmacy on the island of Juist in a trial project lasting several months. For the first and only time in Europe to date, it is thus possible to operate and test an unmanned aircraft with no direct visual contact by a pilot under real conditions.
The so-called DHL Paketkopter is a drone developed as part of a joint project involving the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at the RWTH Aachen and the company Microdrones. The specialist fields of the RWTH Aachen include conducting research into the safe and solid operation of unmanned aircraft used for a wide range of tasks under difficult environmental and weather conditions. Microdrones GmbH from Siegen is one of the leading suppliers of autonomously flying helicopters and has developed the Paketkopter on the basis of one of its own aircraft that it has already built.
The system used for DHL is a so-called quadcopter, which is propelled by four rotors arranged on one level. Its total weight is less than five kilos. A lightweight, teardrop-shaped, weather-and water-resistant container has been developed for carrying loads weighing up to 1.2 kilos. It is attached to the underside of the carbon-fiber chassis of the Paketkopter.
The quadcopter is being used on weekdays for the time being. The focus is on times when there are no alternative connections to the island available by plane or ferry.
The Paketkopter lands on a specially designated takeoff and landing spot, from where the goods are delivered to the recipient by the DHL delivery agent.
An autopilot with automatic takeoff and landing function, which works solidly and reliably, has been developed so that the aircraft moves safely through the air and always lands in the right spot. The device is supported by the latest-generation GPS technology.
The helicopter underwent extensive testing beforehand. Since its maiden flight in December, the Paketkopter has been continuously improved and optimized in terms of its robustness, range, and speed. In view of the challenging climatic conditions on the North Sea Coast, the aircraft’s resistance to rain, snow, and dust was an important prerequisite for being granted approval for test flights by the German air traffic control authorities. The small helicopter’s new technical features include the ability to fly for longer and a greater range. Such improvements have enabled it to master the 12-kilometer journey from the seaport of Norden in Lower Saxony to the island of Juist. The Paketkopter will fly at a height of around 50 meters and is capable of speeds of up to 18 meters per second depending on wind conditions. The maximum flight time of the Paketkopter is given as 45 minutes and it flies completely autonomously, which means that at no time does a pilot have to intervene to control the device. However, for safety reasons, flights are permanently monitored by a mobile ground station in Norddeich during the testing phase so that it can intervene and offer assistance without delay in the event of any incidents.
Field testing of this world first is set to last until the end of the year. “Our DHL Paketkopter 2.0 is already one of the safest and most reliable flight systems in its class and meets the standards required in such an application scenario. For the first time ever, an unmanned aircraft in the form of the DHL Paketkopter can handle a transport task out of sight of the pilot in the real world,” stressed Jürgen Gerdes, the executive at DHL responsible for the technical innovation.
At present there are no concrete plans to use the Paketkopter beyond the test phase. However, according to DHL, the use of drones for delivering particularly urgent goods in sparsely populated or difficult-to-reach areas and dispatching emergency deliveries is conceivable in future insofar as this is technically possible and economically viable.
Yet irrespective of if and when the starting signal is given for their use, DHL has managed to focus the public’s attention once again on the subject of drones in the area of logistics with the test phase alone. What’s more, it did so with a realistic operational model long before Amazon even started its much discussed project.