DHL drone

Drone delivery services: prime movers on demand

We’ve all heard the hype about automated flying vehicles bringing parcels direct to your door, but when will drone delivery-on-demand get off the ground in the UK?

Imagine a world in which flying drones deliver critical supplies across treacherous terrain, carry emergency defibrillators swiftly to heart attack patients or drop car parts in to your local garage in only five minutes.

In fact, these automated drone services have already taken flight around the world. Businesses, charities, aviation companies and university departments are working together in trials that seem to promise drone delivery on demand.

Yet how close are we in the UK to clicking a button to order online, and seamlessly receiving our parcel at home via a robotic drone? Whether it’s a forgotten birthday gift, a vital replacement cable or a pair of trainers – promoted by Amazon’s recent Prime Air advertisement featuring Jeremy Clarkson – we all have moments when a rapid-response delivery service feels like a lifesaver.

“Two years ago I would have said it was more likely that pigs would fly,” says David Jinks, head of consumer research at international delivery broker ParcelHero. Aviation regulations made commercial drone use look unlikely, particularly in the US. “But Amazon is talking to the British government, and they’re listening quite sympathetically,” he says.

Jeff Bezos, Amazon’s CEO, recently confirmed that UK regulators are moving faster than the US. The company has set up a research lab in Cambridge where drone delivery is a key project. “We are working with regulators and policymakers in many countries in order to make Prime Air a reality for our customers as soon as possible,” the company says.

Amazon isn’t the only business with sights on drone services. Google is promising airborne deliveries with its Project Wing. The system has so far undergone trials in rural Australia and is scheduled to begin operations in 2017.

Royal Mail’s chief executive Moya Greene has also mused about the possibility of drones, saying in a speech to the CBI last year that they could help maintain daily postal deliveries in rural areas – although the company says this is not a current plan.

“The problem is that you can’t receive an online purchase faster than it takes to get through the postal system,” explains Harry Huskisson of the Postal Museum. “Drones are a natural response to this, in the same way that new technology has cut delivery times in the past, from the early mail coaches to the driverless electric railway that once carried post under London.”

Jinks works with all the major names in delivery, and he believes there is an appetite for drone services among UK customers. “The ecommerce revolution has changed everything,” he explains. “In terms of retail fulfilment, we’re seeing that customers really want a choice of convenient delivery options. Increasingly, time is money.”

Spreading their wings

For some onlookers, the proposal to fly parcels through the air, instead of simply using a human courier who can already drive, walk and cycle, seems silly. Headline-grabbing deliveries of single cups of coffee via the ‘Coffee copter’, in an Amsterdam office building, tend to generate column inches rather than capability. Recent Chinese trials to deliver cakes by drone, or lunchtime fast food, could easily be seen as empty calories. Equally, Walmart’s idea that drones could be the best way to transport shopping from the store to customers’ vehicles in the car park might seem like overkill.

Yet on relatively small scales, drones are already providing services that save time, effort and even lives. Chinese ecommerce company has announced a programme of drone deliveries in rural regions, aiming to reach customers with poor road connections that make courier journeys slow and arduous. This follows earlier trials by retail giant Alibaba – often known as the Chinese Amazon.

Medical drones have started to spread their wings, too. DHL has run a regular parcel drone service in Germany since 2014, using a four-rotor Parcelcopter modified to cope with North Sea wind and rain. It delivers medicines and other small packages to the two-village island of Juist, which otherwise has one ferry crossing per day. Swiss Post has worked with a Californian drone manufacturer to trial a service designed to deliver emergency supplies and ferry medical tests to and from the lab.

Automated industrial drones are also soaring skyward. A team at Imperial College London has just won the top Drones for Good prize in Dubai with Buildrone, a quadcopter that detects and fixes leaks in pipelines. For the first time, a drone can both detect a fault and deliver the repair, using a chemical foam.

So what are the areas in which drones still need to prove themselves, and what can the UK learn from the various global trials under way?

Perhaps the first question is about the drone technology itself. Amazon’s blue-and-?orange publicity craft looked sleek, but is one of more than a dozen prototype drones that the firm is considering. “The design seen recently on television is a novel approach to the problem,” says Richard Milton, a drone user and geospatial computing expert from UCL. “It’s a hybrid: it takes off like a quadcopter, but then flies like an aircraft.”

Amazon says its drone will have sense-and-?avoid technology and will operate in airspace entirely separate from manned aviation for safety, below 500 feet. The drone lands to drop off its parcel in an agreed location, before taking to the skies to return to base.

Google’s Project Wing currently takes a different approach, using four-rotor 1.8m-wide drones that take off vertically, before turning horizontally for flight. Crucially, the drones are coordinated via cellular and Internet technology, creating a specialised air traffic control system. The company has even patented a delivery receptacle that uses infrared beacons to connect with the drone, which winches the parcel down to be stored securely.

To Jinks, this sensibly cuts out the human requirement to receive the delivery. “Failed deliveries cost companies a lot of money, and create a lot of hassle for consumers,” he says. “We’re already seeing an increase in parcel lockers – or even companies that arrange to deliver your shopping securely into the boot of your car with a single-use digital key.”

However, have we solved the problem of a reliable coordination and navigation system for drones? Milton’s work involves visualising and analysing city-based systems, and he thinks there is some way to go before drone deliveries become part of the urban scene. “I am not sure automatic systems are yet failsafe in the event that the GPS link was lost, for example. Companies like Intel and Yuneec are working together on collision avoidance systems, but they > < rely on the computer doing lots of complex calculations.”

Safety is indeed a key concern. The recent footage of a camera drone crashing to the ground just behind a speeding skier in Austria was a reminder of the tiny margin for error. Also, airline pilots have just called for action on amateur drones after four near-miss events at British airports. Even worse than birdstrike, the worry with drones is that their batteries may explode catastrophically if sucked into a turbine.

Setting the rules

Delivery drones would need their own set of regulations to allow them to operate safely. A 2015 House of Lords report on Civilian Use of Drones in the EU took a favourable view of the commercial potential of drones. However, it recommended using geo-fencing to restrict drones trying to venture into sensitive areas, as defined using GPS. A government working group is now tackling this question with the help of manufacturers and operators.

Similarly in Japan, regulators are working closely with companies like Yamaha to fast-track legislation so that drones can develop into new markets. While crop-spraying aerial robots have been a regular sight in the country for two decades, companies have their eye on lucrative high-tech industries.

Jeremy Bolduc, who works in the aviation training industry, thinks Britain should also speed its efforts to navigate the regulatory red tape. “The UK is usually good at early adoption in many sectors. The industry would need to adapt to create the regulatory infrastructure, however,” he says. “Once there’s a regulation process and we know who’s flying which drone, I can’t see why this won’t happen.”

Another issue to consider is that of security of the craft and their payloads. “Drones could carry lightweight, small, non-dangerous items,” foresees Milton, “but it would initially be a premium service for premium products. How would you stop someone hijacking your delivery? Or hacking into the electronics?”

Singapore’s national postal service has some experience here. It announced last October that it had successfully delivered a parcel to an offshore island using a Steadidrone Flare. Dr Bernard Leong, SingPost’s head of digital services, explains: “One important component is in cyber security, where the drone directly receives information from the cloud and delivers the package from the delivery base to the destination.” There, the recipient keys a code into an app to release the package.

SingPost believes that drone delivery will produce economies of scale over time which will translate into cost savings – and that battery operation may prove more efficient than petrol vehicles. However, Leong warns that despite enormous increases in ecommerce business, “key considerations remain. The economics and infrastructure for drone delivery are not yet ready.”

Allan Tan is MD of PR specialists Ying Communications in Singapore and can see what may drive drone deliveries in the region. “Transportation is hugely expensive in Singapore, so any form of delivery that cuts down on manpower, the need for expensive vehicles, and time, would be big,” he advises. But there is great potential if the price is right. “Singaporeans – especially the younger generation – readily adopt new technology if it means greater convenience and lower costs.”

Perhaps this is why a second drone trial is beginning in Singapore, with collaboration between Airbus Helicopters and the National University. Initially, documents and parcels will be delivered between stations on campus. If this succeeds, a more commercial goal will follow: transporting urgent items to the huge number of ships anchored off the island’s coast. The overall aim of the Skyways Experimentation Project will be to test the sustainability of drone delivery through ‘safe and secure aerial corridors’.

As well as safety, privacy will also be an issue locally, Tan cautions. “Singaporeans will remain open to drone tech, though social out-of-bounds markers will be drawn up pretty quickly if someone oversteps – for instance, flying a drone into the privacy of someone’s home, or into secure areas.”

The Droneport project

Despite concerns, the potential for aerial delivery technology is enormous. It has caught the imagination of key figures, including architect Lord Foster, whose charitable foundation has unveiled designs for a Droneport in the East African country of Rwanda. An evolution of an airport, the affordably-built Droneport will provide a way of leapfrogging problematic road delivery and taking to the skies with a flexible network of large and small craft.

The Droneport has been developed in partnership with Afrotech, whose founder Jonathan Ledgard says: “It is inevitable on a crowded planet, with limited resources, that we will make more intensive use of our sky using flying robots to move goods faster and more accurately than ever before. But it is not inevitable that these craft or their landing sites will be engineered to be tough, cheap or graceful enough to serve poorer communities who can make most use of them.”

The Droneport will accommodate both commercial and humanitarian payloads, carrying goods efficiently across Rwanda’s mountainous terrain. An initial network of three Droneports, to be completed by 2020, will enable drones to carry supplies to 44 per cent of Rwanda.

This is a project with the potential to disrupt and transform standard transport models. Perhaps it shows that drone delivery will change the world – not because drones can bring a cup of coffee to your desk, but because they can make us think about the way things work – and the way things could change. *

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