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What potential do drones offer when it comes to autonomous deliveries?

How will parcels be delivered to us in the future – by robots or maybe drones? Emqopter from Würzburg is already looking into the technology of tomorrow and investigating a variety of individual and made-to-measure drone technologies. Marvin Bihl, Managing Director of Emqopter, talked to TRANSFER about the regulatory hurdles that will need to be overcome and different ways to gain broader acceptance among the general public. As an expert in this field, he was also at the first #techourfuture event looking at “The Future of Autonomous Flying – Over the Country and People”.

In December 2013, founder and CEO of Amazon Jeff Bezos was taking part in 60 Minutes, a TV show on CBS, when he announced that Amazon was planning to deliver parcels using fully autonomous drones in the future, even though he was fully aware that there was no regulatory framework for such an undertaking at that time. Bezos presented a report on a device called an Oktokopter, which would be automatically loaded with a package in a warehouse, would leave the warehouse autonomously, fly to the customer, land in the front yard, deposit the package by itself, and then return to base again. At the time, he said fully operational deliveries using drones would be realistic, at the earliest, by 2015. In the meantime, Amazon – the world’s biggest public company – is estimated to have invested several billion American dollars in researching and developing delivery drone technology. It has already presented its fourth generation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS’s) for transporting goods. This has made Amazon one of the first companies to actively look into this area, but it is now by no means the only one. For example, firms like Alphabet, Alibaba, DPDHL, JD.com, and a slew of other corporations are involved in delivery drone projects. This is also a reflection of the potential offered by this technology, especially when it comes to the “last mile” of the logistical process.

Regulatory restrictions

Considering the regulatory hurdles that currently affect UAS’s in outdoor areas, this technology could become even more important in the future. For example, until now it has only been permissible to use delivery drones adhering to certain specifications in terms of size, weight and technical features, and only on predefined routes approved by the relevant state aviation authority. The amount of time it takes to gain approval for such flights varies, depending on previous experience with this topic with the aviation authorities, and also on current capacities. This makes it virtually impossible to imagine achieving adaptable and sensible route planning in real time, especially in the way it is required for delivering parcels to private households. Things become even more difficult if a UAS needs to operate on a cross-border basis and thus falls under the jurisdiction of different aviation authorities. Accordingly, using a delivery drone for the last mile in Germany is only possible on direct routes between two fixed points. This makes the technology interesting for regular and urgent deliveries going from A to B.

Emqopter drone delivers consignments in built-up areas

This was the use case for which Emqopter developed the first fully autonomous delivery drone, operating regularly in open skies over Germany in urban areas. The system is based on the principle of full redundancy: If anything goes wrong or a component fails, there is another component that can click into operation seamlessly to replace it, or at least ensure the system “fails safely” – for example by breaking off the mission, returning to base, or carrying out an emergency landing in a safe place.

The average drone cuts delivery times by two thirds and saves 20% on running costs compared to transporting a consignment by car. On top of that, delivery drones are fully electric, so they don’t produce emissions. At the same time, they lighten the load on transportation infrastructures, especially in metropolitan areas.

The full commercial potential offered by using drones for the last mile remains unexploited until now. Companies like Amazon believe there is potential in versatile, needs-based deliveries – typically found in B2C markets. To exploit this potential, the EU has agreed uniform regulations for UAS’s in commercial areas.

Collaborative airspace has been set up, going by the name U-space, the aim of which is to make it possible for manned and unmanned aircraft systems to share flying routes. Drones can be located anywhere within the European cellphone network simply by inserting a SIM card. By merging this information with the radar data on manned aircraft, shared airspace can be coordinated. UAS’s will also be assigned a remote ID so that they can be clearly identified at any time. The idea is also to grant take-off permission through a traffic management system in real time by introducing uniform rules for required specifications affecting the approval protocols of individual missions. The first phase of U-space implementation started in 2019 once operational principles for the service were established. U-space should be fully operational and enter service in 2035.

“Raising public acceptance of autonomous flying objects is extremely important to us”

An interview with Marvin Bihl

Hello Mr. Bihl. Why do you believe it is important to inform society about future technologies?

On the one hand in order to create knowledge, and on the other hand to gain acceptance. Knowledge is important to ensure that the best technology is adopted by society as desired. There are a number of examples of inferior technologies gaining the upper hand in the past, mainly because the public were virtually misinformed. On the other hand, particularly with a disruptive form of technology like unmanned aircraft systems, it’s important to gain acceptance among the general population. It’s only human for people to reject things they don’t know yet. That’s why I believe that the information you provide society with has an influence on the technologies that are adopted. If you think this one through, you realize that to a certain extent providing information is also tantamount to enabling people to decide which directions things should go in.

What kinds of concerns do you encounter in your work, not just from business clients but also from consumers?

There are three main concerns that keep coming up: noise emissions, data protection, and possible criminal action. With data protection, the main concern is that a system might be able to gather personal information or it might ask for data that could be used against uninvolved parties, either to cause them harm or to make money out of them. That could be things like pictures or video data gathered while flying along roads, over private property, or industrial land. Another concern is whether autonomous flying objects could be used by terrorists. When we hear these concerns, we explain that compared to cars on regular roads, the system performs better in noise emissions testing and it adheres to data protection requirements. What that means is that on-board cameras are only used to capture images of the location in the air. This is for safety reasons and no data is recorded or gathered on people on the ground. The recordings made by the system don’t capture anything of a personal nature anyway. For most people it stands to reason that a system like this needs to capture camera images so it can see what’s happening in the air around it. You can compare this to a pilot sitting in the cockpit using the window to look around. That doesn’t mean he’s watching what people are doing underneath him in their gardens. Of course there’s always a danger that drones could be used for criminal activities, but the chances of that happening are much less likely than they are with a car.

If it were up to you, where and how would you use autonomous flying objects? And in which situations would you not use them?

I’d actually use them in all situations where it makes economic sense, or makes sense for societal reasons – or both. I wouldn’t use them in situations where there’s a “disadvantage” for the majority of people. A specific example of this would be transporting medical goods. If you’re transporting urgent blood samples for analysis or for providing a patient with quick treatment, the advantages certainly outweigh the disadvantages seen by some people because of the noise and traffic caused by objects flying around in the sky. By the way, this was an example provided by the participants at the #techourfuture event in Sinsheim. For example it became clear there that such applications would be accepted for medical logistics but if a standard DHL parcel is delivered in the middle of the yard, that wouldn’t be so well accepted at the moment. Of course you have to remember that the last mile is also important for transporting medicines. Acceptance will grow step by step and at the end of the day, noise emissions do really play a big role because they’re lower than those of cars in normal traffic. It’s a question of what you’re used to. People have grown up with cars on the roads. I’ve probably been seeing drones taking off and landing in the back yard down the road for five years now. It won’t be an issue for the next generation. Acceptance will be on a sliding scale, from the less common transportation of medical items to Amazon parcel deliveries, so things will develop step by step – even if some people don’t accept it yet.

In terms of universal use, I think it should be possible to have a regulatory framework in place relatively quickly. I wouldn’t like to predict timings as far as achieving economic efficiency and public acceptance are concerned, but we can be certain that it will involve smaller deliveries at first. I personally think multicopter systems are likely to be used in urban areas as they’re more efficient. They’re reliable, extremely versatile, they can take off and land extremely precisely, and they don’t need much space.

Do we need special laws for UAS’s used in air transportation?

Yes, and there are moves underway on a European level to introduce uniform rules. It will be important to control how airspace is used collaboratively between manned and unmanned aviation systems. If I have a drone and want to fly with it from A to B, I’ll be given a flight corridor and flight altitude by air traffic control, as well as take-off and landing times, just like you do now with manned aircraft. The airspace will be subject to uniform controls and the systems will be able to communicate through a central setup.

Of course there’s a danger that drones will be used for malicious purposes, but there’s less risk of that happening than with something like a car. That’s where using collaborative airspace will be helpful. If somebody’s up there non-collaboratively, they’ll be detected in the airspace pretty quickly. If he starts out collaboratively and then does something hostile contrary to his original intentions, he can be tracked. That’s not possible with a car.

What are you and your company doing to gain broader public acceptance for your technology?

The techourfuture event is an example of our activities in this area. We’re also gaining more acceptance from local residents through our projects with customers. For example, we organize a kind of integration workshop. It’s broken down into two phases. The first phase is about informing residents or bringing them up to speed. To do this, we invite all local residents to a presentation of the project and the system or technology. For the second step, we organize a design thinking workshop which allows us to address the specific questions and concerns of residents and provide them with insights into technological developments. Raising public acceptance of autonomous flying objects, especially delivery drones, is extremely important to us.


Marvin Bihl (author)
Managing Director
Emqopter GmbH (Würzburg)