Delivery by Drone

Around the world, quadcopters are turning into mail carriers.

Pigeons fly alongside DHL's parcelcopter during trials in 2013. (Reuters/Wolfgang Rattay)
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Drones have been in the delivery business since they were invented, delivering data, imagery, and, more recently, ordnance. But two years ago on “60 Minutes,” when Jeff Bezos showed a warehouse full of drones stamped with the Amazon arrow and announced half-hour commercial delivery by as early as 2017, the possibilities for cargo drones seemed to instantly expand.

What didn’t expand was airspace. Under today’s Federal Aviation Administration regulations, operators may apply for a Section 333 Exemption, which allows them “to perform commercial operations in low-risk, controlled environments.” Significantly, the rules bar operators “from allowing any object to be dropped from” a drone.

So how plausible are delivery drones, really? Flying packages in an urban area is fraught with challenges: Go too high and the drone could interfere with an airliner’s airspace; too low and it has to navigate around buildings and trees—not to mention people who would like to snag a drone in addition to its package.

The hazards haven’t stopped dozens of companies from running trials—or staging publicity stunts. You decide which of the following is which.

Meds Mail

Just seven miles from the mainland, the 11-mile-long German sandbar island Juist can be reached only by airplane or ferry, making it a good candidate for a drone delivery trial. From late 2013  through 2014, DHL tested its “parcelcopter” and the feasibility of delivering medicines to the island’s 2,000 residents when the ferry wasn’t able to run—at night and during foggy conditions.

DHL partnered with Microdrones and the Institute of Flight System Dynamics at RWTH Aachen University, according to a company press release. (DHL declined an interview, saying it was still evaluating test flight data.)

The islanders’ blog enthusiastically covered the trials: “She gets more attention than the Venetian wedding of George Clooney, the pregnant Kate from England, or the always lean and pregnant Heidi Klum—‘our’ drone.”

Described in the blog as a cross between a UFO and a Hummel tank (because of the noise), the drone took approximately 20 minutes to travel from the pier at Norddeich to Juist. The flight was completely automated, notes a DHL press release, but was constantly monitored by a mobile ground station in Norddeich in case of malfunction or emergency. The md4-1000 drone can travel at 31 mph, remain in the air for up to 90 minutes, and carry a little over two pounds. The drone flies to a landing area on Juist, where a courier removes the package and delivers it to the island’s pharmacy.

While the blog’s author wistfully hoped for a daily fast food delivery (“a paper bag with a big yellow ‘M’ is almost an emergency”), she recognized the potential of the drone: “It really is a matter of saving lives.”

“At the moment we have no specific plans for using parcelcopters in normal delivery operations,” says DHL.

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