Air cargo industry makes way for D-R-O-N-E-S other UAVs

Published: Monday, December 19, 2016

The UAV Commercial Drone Market is estimated to reach over $1.2 billion by 2020, creating around 150,000 jobs in the EU by 2050

Transportation in the logistics industry is growing, changing and becoming more autonomous, with options more reliant to IoT and connectivity.

The use of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) has been substantially documented in the logistics industry but its current usage remains in the infancy stage and how wide its future use is still unknown.

In an email interview with Air Cargo Update, DHL Express Country Manager Geoff Walsh, notes, “There is a lot of potential use for drones in the future such as remote area deliveries and urgent medical deliveries to catastrophe struck locations. The use of drones for these deliveries can save time, cost and overcome logistical obstacles for sending or picking up items.”

But its availability in the UAE remains hanging pending further studies, rigorous tests and trials on its feasibility, the cargo expert opined.

“The UAE has always been and will continue to be a pioneer when it comes to adopting new technologies and solutions like 3D printing and mobile solutions for government services. Whether it will be available anytime soon or not depends on the reliability of the drones and the technology behind it, which will only be enhanced through rigorous testing and trials,” said Mr. Walsh.

Drone Market Growing

The international freight transport volumes are expected to rise more than four-fold by 2050, with average transport distances across all modes increasing by 12%, according to the forecast of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Develop-ment (OECD).

The UAV Drone Market for Comm-ercial is estimated to reach over US $1.2 billion by 2020, which could create around 150,000 jobs in the EU by 2050, the MARSH report pointed out.

And about 42% of logistics carriers will be using UAVs for their cargo distribution in the future, according to a research by the National Aero-nautical Center (NAC).

With fuel prices identified as one of the greatest perceived risks facing the logistics industry, majority of its stakeholders view UAVs as a way to provide cost savings on a long-term basis.

DHL’s hub in Germany has beaten all the tech companies by launching a regular drone delivery service in a shape of a small robotic helicopter called ‘Parcelcopter’ for the first time in 2013.

“The primary purpose of Parcel-copters as well as other forms of drones is to facilitate the delivery/ pick-up process from areas or destinations that might be challenging to reach. They can also support in cutting delivery time, especially if they are supported by technology such as a GPS locator, etc.,” DHL said in a statement.

“As mentioned, drones and its other forms can aid in the delivery of small to medium sized packages that weigh no more than 5 to 10 kg. Some of the items that can be delivered could be medicines, vaccines and other forms of life-saving supplies to remote areas.”

The DHL Parcelcopter is primarily for circumstances that do not match the standards of established infra-structures or where standard delivery methods are excessively long. Locations which are not linked to the road network are one of the examples.

‘Natural barriers’ such as water or mountains are not an issue for the drone. The DHL Parcelcopter is, thus, seen as an instrument for enhancing infrastructure in hard-to-reach areas, improving the lives of the residents there.

Delivery flights

DHL’s technical innovation Parcel-copter includes extended flight duration and range. The flight is completely automated with a rough span of 12 kilometres. This indicates that the pilot does not have to take any action during the overall flight phase.

For safety reasons and in compliance with the requirements set by the responsible agencies, the DHL Parcel-copter is continuously monitored during the flight by a mobile ground ‘packstation’ called ‘SkyPort’ so that manual action can be taken immediately in real time if a mal-function or emergency persists. The ground station is also in constant contact with air traffic controllers.

To ensure if the DHL Parcelcopter is operating reliably, flying safely and always landing at the right location, an autopilot with automated take-off and landing functions has been developed. This system is robust and reliable and has been tested extensively.

Depending on wind speed, the Parcelcopter can travel up to 18 meters per second with an altitude of 50 meters. Its primary purpose is to transport urgent parcels at certain times during the week and on weekends.

This delivery option focuses on times when such alternatives as ferries and flights are not available. The Parcelcopter takes off from the ‘packstation’ and lands at a launch pad reserved only for the Parcel-copter.

From there, a DHL courier will then deliver the goods to the recipient. To check if the goods are secured optimally during transport, DHL Parcel has developed a particular air-transport container that is extremely lightweight as well as weather and waterproof.

Changing the logistics industry

When asked if Parcelcopter will revolutionise the logistics industry, Mr. Walsh opined, “I do not think the use of drones and other Parcelcopters will transform the logistics industry as their use and requirement is currently quite niche and for very special purposes rather than mainstream deliveries and pick-ups. However, as technology improves and other cutting edge innovations come into place, the use of drones will gradually increase.

“The Parcelcopter is one form of innovation, and at DHL we are constantly looking for ways to innovate and enhance our capabilities. Some other great and fruitful examples include the use of robotics for sorting in our warehouses as well as the use of augmented reality like the Google and Vuzix smart glasses for ‘vision picking’ solutions.”

But the executive stressed that the use of drones might help in booming the e-commerce industry in the long run, once the technology and back-end support systems are all integrated.

“We feel having a stronger post office network that is digitised and readily available for both government and commercial entities would play a much huger role in driving e-commerce especially facilitating deliveries and cutting delivery time and cost”.

Trial phase

DHL parcel successfully concluded a three-month test of its third Parcelcopter generation recently. The trial run was conducted between January and March 2016 in Germany, representing worldwide a parcel service provider directly integrated into its delivery chain for the first time.

During the trial period, customers inserted their shipments into the Skyport to initiate automated shipment and delivery per Parcel-copter. A sum of 130 autonomous loading and off-loading cycles were ultimately performed.

As the major aspect of the trial, the technically upgraded vehicle was able to manage heavier loads, long distances and delivery to an alpine region famous for its geographical and meteorological challenges.

The primary assignment was to master the rapidly changing weather conditions and severe temperature fluctuation in the test area. With that achieved, the DHL Parcelcopter then played out a series of seamless flights.

Each round trip from Valley to plateau at roughly 1,200 meters above sea level covered eight kilometres of flight. The drone’s cargo was typically either sporting goods or urgently needed medicines, and it arrived at the Austrian station within just eight minutes of take-off. A similar trip by car takes more than 30 minutes during winter to reach its destination.

During the upcoming months, DHL Parcel will be analysing performance data and other insights from the trial together with its R&D partner, the Rheinisch Westfälischen Technischen Hochschule Aachen (RWTH). The findings will be used to select other potential areas for testing.