From packages to containers: how drones reshape logistics

2021/05/31 at 3:05 PM

Seven years ago DHL, a global logistics company, successfully examined drones for package delivery. Year by year, unmanned aerial vehicles are attracting more and more logistics providers and transport carriers. Some of them even intend to move containers with drones. Is it real?

The expiring May has set a milestone for the British Royal Mail in terms of innovations as it performed the first two parcel deliveries by autonomous drone. The company became the first UK parcel carrier to deliver mail to an island in a 70-mile out-of-sight (around 113 kilometres). By using few types of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), the Royal Mail expects to improve its service at the remote island communities. All the customers need to do is to provide the postal office with an address and to prepare a 3 metre by 3 metre square, that corresponds to the precise landing point.

Royal Mail tests drone delivery to the Scilly Isles, source: Chris Gorman / Royal Mail

Drone delivery is not a British postal company’s invention. DHL was one of the first to start delivering small parcels by UAVs. In 2013, the logistics operator made the first test delivery using a drone. A small consignment of medicines was carried to a distance of 800 metres then. During the following trials, these devices proved themselves well in difficult weather conditions, for example, in the Bavarian Alps. DHL claims it was the first parcel service provider in the world to directly integrate quadcopters logistically into its delivery chain. Now, company uses the 4th generation of cargo drones. DHL Parcelcopter 4.0 is able to carry up to 4 kilos of payload to the flight distance of 65 kilometres with a maximum speed of 130 kilometres per hour.

Amazon was also in the forefront of the drone delivery trend. In 2016, it completed its first parcel delivery to the customer in England. The drone used in the trial could carry approximately 2 kilos. This service was called Prime Air and was expected to begin operations in selected cities since late 2019 but, as of today, it has not been launched.

DB Schenker also intends to use own UAVs. The VoloDrone, a cargo drone enabling to deliver palettes weighing up to 200 kg, was developed by Volocopter. The first model was presented to the public in late 2019. Companies expect this heavy-lifter to reshape the logistics. It has a range of 40 kilometres and can fly for 30 minutes with one battery charge. DB Schenker states that soon these drones will be able to meet customer needs for fast, emission-free delivery.

Delivering containers?

Another German operator, HHLA, announced drone usage in its container business. Technically, large drones could already carry loads of up to two tons, was said in HHLA’s statement from 2019. The company was mulling the use of UAVs to transport containers through the skies over the port of Hamburg. Angela Titzrath, Chair of the Executive Board of HHLA told then that the first prototypes had recently been tested at the Altenwerder container terminal. The economic feasibility had to be examined at the next stage.

Since then, there is no news about this project. But HHLA keeps using drones for transport of documents, spare parts and material samples. They also can undertake inspections, monitoring, measurements and thermal scans. For example, UAVs regularly monitor the container gantry cranes for any damage.

Visualisation. HHLA drone with container, source: HHLA

Meanwhile, Dronamics, a developer and operator of large freight drones, has announced the launch of its dedicated air carrier, Dronamics Airlines. Currently, Dronamics provides its one-day delivery services with its Black Swan drone in 12 European countries.

Port of Hamburg is not the only one European seaport using UAVs. These flying machines are being increasingly used by companies in the Rotterdam port area, including the Port of Rotterdam Authority itself. Usually, they monitor incidents and water pollution, are used for fire-fighting, surveillance and inspections, the security supervision, monitoring damage, and inspecting installations at the terminals. But in May 2020, a drone delivered package to vessel in the Port of Rotterdam for the first time. In four months, the trial was repeated with landing on the moving vessel in the port water area.

Starting from the last year, several transport companies in the Netherlands (including KLM, Air Traffic Control the Netherlands, Royal Schiphol Group, Port of Rotterdam Authority) work on to promote the deployment of drones for large-scale transport and logistics in the Dutch airspace.

Polish experience

As for Polish enterprises, drones to be used for security measures in port of Gdynia and are already in usage at PKP Cargo. In the Pomeranian port, drones will monitor the pier and define pollutions. They can also transport small freight.

Usage of UAVs allowed PKP Cargo to significantly reduce the theft of goods. High-resolution cameras enable drones to identify thieves. The UAVs help the largest Polish rail freight carrier to take better care of security of the supplies and railway infrastructure.

But the drone industry is still overflowing with unrealistic overpromise on innovative technologies. First of all, because of the real scales of the drones and their profitability and then because of law regulations concerning the safety issues.

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