Flight of fancy or a fascinating new feature of modern living? Some doubt that our skies will ever be filled with pilot-less aerial devices. Others say that this future will be ours very soon. In different ways, both opinions are close to the truth.
This report takes a fully grounded look at the role of microdrones in our near-future. It deals with current capabilities and circumstances, exploring the positive potential as well as the existing limitations of »unmanned aerial vehicles« (UAVs) and examines implications of UAVs for the logistics industry.
While many UAS applications (e.g. in »Film and Photography« or »Emergency Response and Police«) are already common today, the use cases in and for logistics are still in its early stages. The use cases illustrated below must therefore be seen as visionary; the intention is to provide inspiration and trigger discussion. These logistics use cases are not intended as a precise prediction of future developments.
Electrical multicopters (characterized by vertical take-off and landing) appear to be the most promising for the logistics industry. Accordingly we focus on use cases within short distances instead of considering long distance operations. This report divides logistics industry use cases into four categories: Urban First and Last-Mile, Rural Delivery, Surveillance of Infrastructure, and Intralogistics.
Rapid urbanization is one of the megatrends of recent years and the near future, especially in emerging markets. The insurance company Swiss Re forecasts the global urban population will »grow by about 1.4 billion to 5 billion between 2011 and 2030, with 90% of the increase coming in the emerging markets«. Negative implications of this trend include congested roads, pollution, and decreased efficiency caused by delays in the flow of people and goods. It is often difficult for city planners to keep up with the pace of urbanization and population growth. In many cases, infrastructure projects can only provide temporary relief.
Part of the problem is urban first and last mile delivery, and demand for this is likely to increase as e-commerce volumes grow. China posted an impressive compound annual growth rate of 120% between 2003 and 2011 for its e-tailing market (consumer-facing e-commerce transactions excluding financial services, job search, and travel – »China’s e-tail revolution: Online shopping as a catalyst for growth«, McKinsey Global Institute, March 2013) and, even if growth rates are likely to come down, future increases will still be substantial. UAVs could provide major relief for inner cities, taking traffic off the roads and into the skies. So far, payloads are limited but a network of UAVs could nevertheless support first and last-mile logistics networks.
An airborne first and last-mile network could look as follows: Shipments that arrive from outside the city limits are sorted at existing facilities (hubs, warehouses, cross- docking sites), and shipments meeting certain criteria are separated automatically. In addition to size, weight, and time criticalness, these criteria could also include dynamic metrics (e.g., current road conditions, air pollution, and network load). Each UAV automatically picks up assigned shipment(s) from a conveyer belt and takes off. On its way back to the hub, the UAV could carry out point-to-point deliveries that lie on its route.
Its routing decisions would always be dynamic, meaning an intelligent network would redistribute all resources in real-time, depending on the load and urgency of certain shipments. When an assignment for emergency transport comes in (e.g., time-critical delivery of blood from a blood bank), this is prioritized. End customers are equipped with an app that allows them to see nearby UAVs and order a dynamic pick-up – this system would use GPS data from the customer’s smartphone to meet him or her wherever they are, even if they move to a different location after placing the order. There would be the same flexibility for deliveries – as soon as the customer sends a notification, a UAV leaves the hub and makes delivery direct to the customer location or in case of returns, picks it up right from the first mile of the customer.
The first and last meters of the delivery process are likely to be the most technically challenging. If the customer is outdoors and moving, the UAV could meet them and »hand-over« the delivery after identifying the customer via NFC or QR code on their smartphone. But if the customer is at home, things gets trickier. With a garden or balcony available, the UAV could drop the parcel onto this. With large buildings and skyscrapers, the UAV could land on the roof. The most problematic delivery would be to mid-sized buildings with pitched roofs – structures that are prevalent in European locations – necessitating an alternative delivery point, perhaps some sort of collection point. The existing DHL Packstation or Paketkasten network could be upgraded to handle shipments of this kind.
This urban first and last-mile use case is probably the most tangible and spectacular in the logistics industry. But it is also the application with perhaps the largest barriers, because privacy and safety concerns multiply in the densely populated urban environment. And it is the most challenging in terms of regulatory framework conditions and infrastructure – especially integration into existing urban infrastructures.
The potential of UAV technology is also evident in rural locations with poor infrastructure or challenging geographic conditions. George Barbastathis of the Harvard-MIT Division of Health Sciences and Technology initiated research into UAVs »to swiftly transport vaccines to rural locations and alleviate first and last-mile delivery problems and improve cost, quality, and coverage of vaccine supplies.« For the logistics industry, rural delivery by UAV is attractive not only in emergency applications because low-volume remote locations represent a costly part of standard networks. Furthermore, they typically require a non-standard infrastructure tailored to regional specifics (e.g., mountainous settings or island delivery).
For remote island locations, a conceivable use case is the delivery of parcels to near-shore islands, either replacing an existing (and complex) process involving cars, boats, and postal workers, or providing new, additional services. These could be off-peak delivery services originating from the mainland or specific express services (e.g., for pharmaceutical delivery).
To gain valuable insight into a comparable application, Deutsche Post DHL partnered with the UAV manufacturer microdrones in December 2013 to deliver pharmaceuticals to employees at DHL’s headquarters in Germany. This joint project took place in the city of Bonn, but the setting was comparable to a rural location as the UAV flew across the Rhine river – both the take-off and landing areas and the flight path were free of any buildings.
This is noteworthy as it substantially simplifies flight and delivery operations – buildings influence wind patterns and GPS signal strength and, most importantly, complicate delivery compared to the simple drop-off that’s possible in rural settings.
A UAV called the »DHL Paketkopter« (»parcel-copter«) was under the manual control of an operator at all times, to fulfill regulatory requirements. But from a technical perspective, it could have operated with full autonomy by following GPS waypoints. This vehicle was equipped with a release mechanism allowing it to put down the parcel via remote control or pre-programmed instruction.
Based on the test flights in December DHL continued to pursue this use case September 2014 by going into regular delivery service from the town of Norden in North Germany to the North Sea island of Juist. The goal is to carry medicine and other urgently needed items quickly and flexibly. More than twelve kilometres are covered autonomously by the microdrone without any intervention of a pilot. Remarkably, for the first time the system is operating out of sight of a human operator (BVLOS – Beyond Visual Line Of Sight) and is likely to be the first of its category ever to complete such a mission with official approval.
This project clearly underlines the feasibility of UAV-based deliveries in a real-world setting. A widespread use, however, will still need time.
UAVs offer greatest advantage to infrastructures that are weak or almost non-existent. For example, in rural Europe aerial deliveries via a UAV network could speed
up deliveries and raise service levels, but in rural Africa this could be a complete game changer. Remote communities in developing nations often lack access to proper roads and train lines. Connecting villages through UAV delivery networks could enable their participation in the global economy and more frequent supply of critical goods.
This would, in turn, speed up economic development, as at some level the use of UAVs overcomes the expensive and time-consuming task of establishing infrastructure.
As in other industries, organizations in the logistics industry must monitor their infrastructure. UAVs can help with security and safety surveillance in large-scale facilities such as warehouse sites, yards, docks and even pipelines. They can also help to guide various operations (e.g., the movement of trucks and forklifts on site). Probably the most promising application is using UAVs to provide customers with a value-added service (VAS); for example on oil fields. BP, British multinational oil and gas company, will routinely use UAVs to patrol their Alaskan oil fields which is the first authorized commercial UAV operation in the United States. Their UAVs will be used to monitor specific maintenance activities on roads, oil pipelines, and other infrastructure in the vast and potentially dangerous arctic environment of northern Alaska. It is estimated that BP ground crews spend up to a week checking a two mile section of pipeline, however, according to BP’s technology director Curt Smith, UAVs can scan a two mile section in 30 minutes.
At a first level, surveillance of infrastructure involves the logistics company in monitoring its own sites and assets. This can ensure they are used to full capacity and are protected (e.g., theft reduction in warehouses containing items of particular value). The status of the infrastructure can be assessed from the air, and damage (e.g., on a warehouse roof) can be evaluated. At some future point in time, it may be possible for UAVs to carry out minor repairs on hard-to-reach parts of buildings and infrastructure.
At a second level, surveillance of infrastructure involves the logistics company in monitoring its own sites and assets. This can ensure they are used to full capacity and are protected (e.g., theft reduction in warehouses containing items of particular value). The status of the infrastructure can be assessed from the air, and damage (e.g., on a warehouse roof) can be evaluated. At some future point in time, it may be possible for UAVs to carry out minor repairs on hard-to-reach parts of buildings and infrastructure.
At a second level, surveillance of infrastructure involves the logistics company offering UAV services to its customers. Taking the example of an energy customer, their site may be of gigantic scale and their assets expensive and difficult to track. Losing the value of an asset, and hours invested searching for it, could be made even worse by customs fines for each imported item that is temporarily lost. Additionally, the energy customer is likely to be constantly challenged by issues of Health, Safety, Security, and the Environment (HSSE). It is not easy to keep perfect safety records in the harsh environment of oilfields and mining sites, and DHL already supports energy customers with asset tracking and HSSE record-keeping improvements.
To reach the next level of operational excellence, logistics companies and their customers may – at some point in the future – use UAVs to support tasks such as asset tracking, monitoring risk hotspots, and locating missing employees.
UAVs could play a vital role in intralogistics. Consider the automotive industry with its massive production sites, just-in-time processes, and mind-boggling cost of idle production lines: UAVs could support intra-plant transport as well as the supplier-to-plant emergency deliveries which are typically performed by helicopter today. Large-scale mining areas could also profit from the on-site express delivery of items that are crucial to maintaining operations (e.g., delivery of tools, machine parts, and lubricants).
UAVs are easy to deploy and can follow pre-defined flight paths, so there is no requirement for specially trained personnel to launch and fly them. As long as system operations are limited to private premises only, the organization has to deal with minimal regulatory boundaries and privacy concerns (issues that can be so detrimental that they render other use cases unfeasible). The most significant limitation for intralogistics is probably the payload issue. Smaller, affordable UAVs are still disappointingly expensive, and large unmanned helicopters almost rival their manned counterparts in terms of cost, maintenance, and infrastructure requirements, eliminating their major advantages.
Another imaginable intralogistics application is the use of UAVs inside the warehouse environment for more flexible and accessible high-bay storage. For example, a Fraunhofer IML research project investigates the use of a UAV platform for indoor and outdoor flights. This concept is based on the Internet of Things, focusing on self-organization of machines and interaction among systems. The sensors allow the system to independently observe and analyze the surrounding environment so that the UAV is able to navigate through a warehouse, find logistical objects and carry out an inventory check. The information collected is also transmitted to third-party systems via intelligent interfaces and services. This allows the direct transfer of selected context-related information.
It is clear that substantial challenges lie ahead for UAVs, particularly the regulatory environment, privacy concerns, and integration into existing networks. It is likely to take considerable time and effort to overcome these challenges and, in fact, many branches of the logistics industry may never develop regular use of UAVs at all.
However, this report has indicated specific applications in which UAVs are already succeeding today – applications that increase delivery speed and customer service levels, lower cost and, in some cases, save lives.
From today’s perspective, the two most promising uses in the logistics industry regarding business potential are:
- Urgent express shipments in crowded megacities – improving the delivery speed, network flexibility, and potentially even the environmental record
- Rural deliveries in areas that lack adequate infrastructure (e.g., in Africa) – enabling people in remote locations to be connected to the global trade networks
This topic will continue to be of great interest over the next few years, particularly if technological developments and changes in legislation accelerate the dissemination of UAVs.
microdrones invites you to join this exciting journey to the future.
Special thanks go to Dr. Markus Kückelhaus, DHL Trend Research. Text excerpts taken from: »UNMANNED AERIAL VEHICLE IN LOGISTICS – A DHL perspective on implications and use cases for the logistics industry – 2014«, DHL Trend Research