Why Last Mile Delivery by Drone Trials Are Not Quite What They Seem

By James Gordon

The road that runs through the tiny 12th century Bavarian village of Reit im Winkl is as old as it is long. But the scenic German hamlet which is a staging-post for Deutsche Alpenstraße, an ancient 450-mile track beginning at Lake Constance and ending in Berchtesgaden on the Austrian border, is also embracing next-generation technology, which one global logistic provider is hoping will revolutionise the last mile e-commerce services market. [i]

Last year, the mountainous village of Reit im Winkl played host to DHL, as it successfully tested its ‘Parcelcopter’, a 2,200 mm tilt-wing aircraft. Between January and March last year, the parcelcopter made 130 trips, carrying medicines and other small items on round trips totaling eight kilometres in just eight minutes. [i]

And there are a number of other trials, some that are currently taking place in the UK, which many 3PLs see as the first steps in eliminating freight deliveries by road.

drone freight exchange
Photo courtesy of ARPAS-UK

But it is not a view shared by Dr William Crowther, leader of the Unmanned Aerial Vehicles research group at the University of Manchester.

Says Dr Crowther, “There have been a number of preliminary drone testing programmes around the world, but they are just trials. DHL, Australia Post, Singapore Post and Swiss Post, Google and Facebook have all conducted experimental projects. However, perhaps the most famous one in the UK was carried out by Amazon last year, when a number of national newspapers reported that the e-commerce giant had delivered an Amazon Fire TV and a bag of popcorn to a rural address in Cambridge in just 13 minutes.[ii]

“But, the column inches contained very few details regarding the myriad of approvals that Amazon had to secure from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) over many months, and the mountain of paperwork it had to complete before it could perform the demonstration delivery.  In reality, however, Amazon did not do anything new. The flight conformed to CAA rules. This flight, therefore, could have been performed a decade ago. It was a willingness to satisfy the regulatory requirements and the resources to do so. That was the difference in the end, and not really a leap forward in technology.”

drone haulage exchange
Photo courtesy of ARPAS-UK

Creating the drone corridors of tomorrow…

But the strict rules, regulations and conditions that are stymying drone use has not put-off e-commerce leviathans like Amazon from incorporating commercial drones into its future business plans.

On the contrary, Amazon recently announced a future plan to create a drone corridor, which would consist of two distinct highways in the sky. The first lane would accommodate low-speed traffic, which would fly a maximum of 61 metres above ground level, while a second corridor, effective from 62 to 122 metres, would ferry goods at high-speed to their destination. But is Amazon’s strategy practically feasible, and more importantly, will it satisfy the lawmaking bodies which regulate our airspace? [iii]

Speaking from his office in Manchester, Dr Bill Crowther, however, is doubtful. “Current and future legislation in the UK, and in the USA and Europe, where the regulations are even tighter, will mean that Amazon and other logistics operators will find it very challenging to push through their master plans – especially when it comes to last mile deliveries in towns and cities.

“However, that said, in a decade’s time, there are some user-cases where drone highways could be effective. For example, if Amazon were to build warehouse in rural areas, it could (in theory at least and subject to legislation) link them using a drone superhighway to consolidation centers on the fringes of large cities. However, this would still mean, that a lorry would be likely to involved in the final stages of any urban delivery.”

But how do logistics providers overcome the obstacle of utilising drones beyond the line of sight? Dr Crowther and his team of scientists are currently carrying out a raft of tests at the Snowdonia Aerospace Centre in north Wales, and he explains the importance of such trials, “In the UK, anyone wishing to test a drone beyond the line of vision needs to be able to validate and safety test every component in the UAV in a number of scenarios over a three-year period. But, with safety being paramount, it would be ‘pie in the sky’ to think that CAA would then allow drone flights over cities. A drone would need to undergo several more years of testing over different terrains before the CAA allowed this to happen. But, most importantly, ‘sense and avoid’ systems would also need to be tested concurrently and for a UAV to be able to fly over a built-up area, the operator would need to empirically prove to the civil aviation authority that the drone has the same vision and capability as a pilot. This is not possible at present, and even with the huge advances in Artificial Intelligence, it may be some time before a drone can mimic a human.”

Dr Crowther continues, “Secondly, I believe to really convince the legislators, logistics companies and e-commerce providers need to create ‘connected’ drone highways. In other words, they need to equip drones with next-generation navigation and guidance systems. UAVs would benefit from transponder technology for example, which allows the drone to identify itself and its cargo and communicate its position, altitude and destination to the operator and Civil Aviation Authority. There also needs to be an inter-connected infrastructure – a centralised system – where the drone operator can file a flight-path, negotiate with other drones using the same route in real-time, and buy a slot in the same way a commercial airliner does.  I believe this will take at least another decade and maybe longer, before this inter-connected and interoperable landscape comes into being.”

drone haulage exchange
Photo courtesy of ARPAS-UK

The role freight exchanges can play in a freight landscape dominated by drones…

But if delivery by commercial drone does eventually become a focal part of global freight operations, Dr Crowther believes that freight exchange platforms could actually benefit.

“If drones are to become as prevalent as many in industry would like them to be, then we will witness a seismic sea-change in the ownership model. In the future, UAVs won’t be owned and operated by single companies. Instead, businesses who wish to deliver goods will buy a drone load-matching service, such as one offered by a freight exchange platform. In theory, if an exchange platform can already use real-time visibility to map a virtual fleet of several thousand vehicles, it would be able to quickly adapt to providing the same service to its members for drones.

“Secondly, as the payloads on drones are still quite low, and the range of rotary-wing UAVs still quite short, an exchange platform which uses real-time mapping to reduce dead-end miles and consolidate drone loads would be a hugely beneficial tool for industry to lean on. In particular, if delivering prescriptions by drone gets the go ahead, freight exchange platforms could provide the glue that links up a network of hospitals.

“Thirdly, a freight exchange platform employing real-time ground-to-air tracking system, could open up many new possibilities. If for example, part of a load booked on the system is missing, or a customer decides that they want to add to it, the only solution today is to send out another truck nearby to the warehouse to collect the consignment.  However, an innovative freight exchange platform could enable the operator to locate a drone nearby to the warehouse, book it and task it with carrying the remaining cargo to the client.”

“Finally, delivery drones can be used for a myriad of tasks. A forward-looking exchange platform could, in theory, take advantage of multi-purpose mapping UAVs. It could be, for example, that the Department for Transport, or a private road contractor urgently needs to analyse pictures of a section of damaged motorway. By using an exchange platform, it could quickly establish that there is a drone in close vicinity with capability to capture aerial footage and relay back to the transport authority in seconds.”

freight exchange drone
Photo courtesy of ARPAS-UK

[i] Successful Integration of DHL Parcelcopter into Logistics Chain

DHL website

05, September, 2016


[ii] Amazon makes first drone delivery to a house in Cambridge


[iii] Newsweek

Amazon drone flight corridors