Although big players such as Amazon, Google and the United Arab Emirates have all announced plans to launch drone-based delivery services, it looks like DHL Parcel is about to beat them to it. This week, the courier company announced that it will begin using its unmanned DHL Parcelcopter to deliver pharmaceuticals from the German seaside village of Norddeich, across 12 km (7.5 miles) of the North Sea, to the small island of Juist.
Taking place on days when the regular ferry or manned flights aren't available, the delivery flights will occur at least once a week.
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The Parcelcopter (or Paketkopter, if you want to go with its German name) will take off, fly and land autonomously, beyond the line of sight of its mobile ground station in Norddeich. That said, people at that station will continuously monitor its flights in real time via a long-range data link, and will be in constant contact with regional air traffic controllers.
It will cruise at an altitude of 50 meters (164 ft) and speeds of up to 18 meters (59 ft) per second, depending on wind speeds.
Upon reaching Juist, the copter will set down at a designated landing pad. There, a local DHL ground crew will retrieve the medications from its weatherproof carbon fiber cargo compartment, then deliver them to residents or tourists in person – so no, it won't be flying down town streets, landing at peoples' doorsteps. For the time being, it will also stick to only delivering high-priority pharmaceuticals, as opposed to other types of packages.
Built by project co-partner Microdrones GmbH (the other partner is The Institute for Flight System Dynamics at RWTH Aachen University), the electric quadcopter itself weighs under 5 kg (11 lb), can carry a payload of up to 1.2 kg (2.6 lb), and can remain in flight for up to 45 minutes or at least 12 km. This presumably means that it will require a battery swap or recharge on Juist before heading back to the mainland.
Along with its data link, it's also equipped with "advanced sensor technology," and it can be remotely operated from its base station in the event that something goes wrong with its autopilot. Its flights will be confined to a restricted airspace, set aside by the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure.
The flights will continue for several weeks, after which the long-term feasibility of the system will be assessed.
You can see one of its trial delivery runs, in the German-language video below.