will we one day be delivered by drone?

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Autonomous and unmanned drones are already operating in many areas, but delivery is still in the experimental stage. Many prototypes work and wait for regulations to be put into circulation. While some flights are possible, city delivery remains problematic and uncertain.

Imagine yourself in Fontanil-Cornillo, a small mountain village near Grenoble. There, in a dedicated place, a driver parks his vehicle where a drone is located. He then uses his remote control to open the sliding door of the truck, bring out a rail and initiate the flight of the drone towards the village of Mont-Saint-Martin (3 km as the crow flies). The drone does not land, but drops the package in the delivery terminal, and returns to its starting point in the truck. A race that lasted 8 minutes. The recipient then receives an SMS with a code that he uses to collect his parcel – as in the instructions.

This delivery is provided by DPD France, a subsidiary of the La Poste group, authorized since October 2019 by the General Directorate of Civil Aviation (DGAC) to operate on this commercial line in Isère. In 2016, the subsidiary had already obtained an initial authorization for an air corridor for a 15 km commercial line in the Var. These are the only two operational and legal examples in France of delivery by drones.

For now, drones can cross a highway, but they mostly fly over forests or uninhabited areas.

Jean-Luc Defrance

Head of technologies and digital for the Express Transport of DPDgroup

“Delivering in town is not possible”

“We are testing these deliveries in areas that are either difficult to access, such as the mountains, or remote like islands, or in the countryside”, says Jean-Luc Defrance, technology and digital manager for the Transport Express of DPDgroup which operates for La Poste. For this specialist, the city is not a priority. Quite the contrary. “This is not a goal for us in the next few years, because the laws do not allow flying in the city. For now, drones can cross a highway, but they mostly fly over forests or uninhabited areas. Delivering in town is not possible. Today, no competitor has a real certificate to fly regularly. “

The truck used by La Poste to launch the drone. © La Poste

While several drone delivery tests have been carried out in France by the companies Air Marine, Thales, IMS (a Bordeaux scientific laboratory) and Onera (French aerospace research center), the generalization of drone transport is not yet considered. The regulations applied to air transport in urban areas remain very restrictive and the reliability of the machines, their autonomy and their precision do not provide sufficient safety conditions to deploy such a service on an industrial scale. On the other hand, several prototypes would be intended to deliver parcels to depots 50 km from large cities and, thus, to bring the parcels closer to an urban center.

Life-size test in Australia for Google

On its website, Wing (a Google subsidiary dedicated to last mile drone delivery) announces exploits. The company, which tests its drones in Australia, would receive an order every 30 seconds during its operating hours. Coffee, roast chicken, sushi, bread, eggs… Wing’s drones can carry 1.2 kg of goods over 10 km. At their destination, they stop at a height of 7 meters and a cable to which the package is hung goes down to the ground.

The Wing drone. © Wing

To promote air delivery, US civil aviation has started issuing air carrier licenses since 2019. UPS and Google, for example, have obtained this type of license. The firm’s goal is to deliver products in just 30 minutes, after ordering, for packages weighing up to 2.3 kg.

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Billions of Euro’s. This is the turnover that the European drone market would reach by 2030.

But beware of the announcement effects: if these tests are authorized in sparsely populated areas, again, flying over cities and large metropolises (where the needs are the most important) is not authorized. Regulatory constraints hinder the development of these unmanned aerial technologies there for safety reasons. “These devices are not for the moment capable of reacting in an adapted way to the obstacles which they could meet during their descent to the ground”, explains the specialist in urban mobility, Guillaume Thibault, associate consultant at Oliver Wyman.

Europe speeds up cargo drones

With the health crisis, the delivery of medical products by drones has taken off. This is evidenced by the Caelus medical logistics program which, since December 2020, has been operating across Scotland, and the Airmour project (funded by the EU) which will test in 2023 the organization of emergency services in the cities of Stavanger ( Norway) and Helsinki (Finland). However, the drone transport sector in the European Union is gradually regulating itself. Last November, Brussels gave the green light to the world’s leading network of cargo drone ports. The project includes private airports and airport groups operating in more than 35 airports in 11 European countries. The project is being carried out by the Bulgarian company Dronamics which is already preparing for certification and plans to launch its first flights before spring 2022. They will be carried on board Black Swan drones, with a capacity of 350 kg each and a range of 2,500 km.

Aware of the rapid expansion of this air mobility sector, its potential for job creation and economic growth in the EU, Brussels adopted last September the U-Space standard aimed at integrating safely the management of unmanned aerial vehicle (UTM) traffic in European airspace. As its architect Thomas Neubauer sums it up: “The U-Space regulations have made it possible to set up a normative framework to harmonize the operations of manned aircraft, drones and air taxis in shared urban airspace at low altitude. “ What to glimpse real perspectives …

For further :
Mobility of the future by Sylvie Setier and Renaud Lefebvre at LeSearch midi editions, 2017.

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