Drones Come to The Mainstream
Updated September 25, 2014
DHL To Deliver Medicine Via Drones
Deutsche Post DHL Follows Amazon and Google in Testing Delivery Drones
BERLIN— DHL said it would use a drone to deliver medication to a German island in the North Sea, marking the first routine drone delivery to customers and another step in the rapid advancement of the technology.
DHL said Wednesday that as part of a month-long feasibility project, it will start using unmanned aircraft this week to carry medicine from the harbor town of Norddeich, Germany, to the small island of Just. Each day—depending on weather—the drone will fly autonomously on a preprogrammed seven-and-a-half-mile route, the first routine missions in Europe in which a drone will operate beyond the pilot's eyesight, DHL said.
DHL's plans follow those of Amazon.com Inc. and Google Inc., which have each tested their own delivery drones. Those U.S. Internet companies have said the routine deployment of the devices is years away—in part because of regulatory challenges—but DHL is hoping to demonstrate that the technology is ready for some real-world applications.
Drone makers and observers have touted the potential for drone deliveries in remote areas where existing infrastructure makes shipping difficult. Governments have also been more willing to authorize drone flights over less populated areas, so the technology is expected to arrive first in islands like Just, where there are no cars, and the remote outback in Queensland, Australia, where Google tested its delivery drones.
Several government agencies worked together to establish a restricted flight area specifically for the North Sea drone flights, DHL said. U.S. aviation authorities have moved more slowly than other countries in approving commercial-drone flights, even for testing, prompting Amazon to conduct some of its tests in Canada, and Google in Australia.
DHL launched its drone-research project last year in Bonn, Germany, delivering medication across the Rhine River to a lawn behind the company's headquarters. In that weeklong project, a pilot on the ground controlled the bright-yellow quadcopter—a small helicopter with four rotors—on its one-and-a-half-mile round trip.
DHL said its partners, Microdrones GmbH and a German university, revamped the drone for the new project to withstand the wind and weather conditions of the North Sea.
The drone will land on a specified field in Just, where DHL couriers will retrieve the parcels and deliver them to residents and vacationers on the island. DHL said pilots on the ground in Norddeich will stay in contact with air-traffic controllers and monitor the drone in case they need to intervene.
Thanks to a proliferation of inexpensive sensors, chips, cameras and other gizmos that can be tacked onto wannabe spy planes and helicopters, it's easier than ever for technologists to build craft that fly themselves.
The techies are sending the three-to-six foot wide drones, guided by computers, radios and soon cellphones, to survey fields, capture action shots from the air or follow them around to snap photos at optimal angles. About their only constraints: a 400-foot ceiling for amateur drones set by the Federal Aviation Administration—and battery life.
A product designer in San Francisco, has built about a dozen drones for $150 to $1,000 each. He says he spends at least 20 hours a week tweaking and flying them. He says drones have allowed him to capture some hard-to-get photos of the Bay Area—including an image of himself on top of Corona Heights shot from far away.
Another hobbyist, pilots a drone as pedestrians watche in Berkeley.
A product designer, who helped design the Flip video camera, is working on technology that allows the drones to be controlled via iPhones and Android devices. He also recently built drones with a fancy chip that can process inputs from three gyroscopes, three accelerometers and a compass."We're ahead of the phones," he says, who adds that he prefers the helicopters to the airplanes, because they are easier to test in his backyard.
At Berkeley Marina, a software engineer at Walt Disney Co.'s Pixar Animation, takes his airplane drone and "quadcopter" out for a spin almost every weekend. His fanciest drone is equipped with a camera that allows him to see what it sees by wearing goggles. "It's very similar to being in the air," he says.
The drone subculture in Silicon Valley reflects the widening use of unpiloted aircraft by the U.S. military and law-enforcement agencies. Some entrepreneurs are imagining businesses based on the gadgets, a brainstorm of some computer programmers, which would deliver a taco to a customer's door.
The growth and increased sophistication of the toy vehicles has raised questions about whether the technology should be in hobbyists' hands. Privacy advocates, meantime, have raised concerns that drones could be used for surveillance.
The FAA allows amateurs to fly drones for fun, as long as they stick to rules like not flying the machines over people and keeping their drones below 400 feet and in their line of sight. The FAA has said it plans to allow commercial use—meaning businesses that deploy drones, such as the one designed deliver a taco—in the coming years.
Meanwhile, demand is increasing for instruction on how to build a drone. A workshop for hackers in Oakland, plans to hold sessions for building 10 to 20 drones in coming months. The president who works on security communications for the Mozilla Foundation, says building a drone can be detailed, requiring soldering, other mechanical skills and uploading software to run the hardware.
"If things go crazy, it will fly in your face," He says of the devices. One of the trickiest steps is calibrating a drone to fly outdoors based on the wind and other variables, he adds.
Some are proving drone-building can be a business. In 2009, a drone evangelist, co-founded a drone-building company in San Diego. The firm sells drone parts, such as electronic pilots and sensors. He says it is growing at 50% a year and has multimillions in revenue.
He likens the community of hobbyists to Silicon Valley's Homebrew Computer Club in the 1970s, where Apple Inc. co-founders Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak showed off their first personal computer. At the time, the future uses of computers weren't clear, he says, with the software applications materializing over time. "I think drones will go the same way."
Organizations That Have Sought to Use Drones
Police departments and universities nationwide have obtained licenses from the FAA to use drones, according to data obtained via Freedom of Information Act requests by the Electronic Frontier Foundation, an advocacy group. See a list of what groups have requested licenses, and the status of that request.
Status of License
|U.S. Air Force||Active|
|Arlington (Texas) Police Department||Active|
|CAL FIRE (California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection)||Expired|
|City of Herington, Kan.||Active|
|City of Houston Police Department||Expired|
|City of North Little Rock, Ark., Police Department||Active|
|DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency)||Active|
|DHS (Department of Homeland Security) / CBP (Customs and Border Protection)||Active|
|DHS (Department of Homeland Security) / Science and Technology||Active|
|DOE (Department of Energy) - Idaho National Laboratory||Active|
|DOE (Department of Energy) - National Energy Technology Laboratory||Expired|
|Department of Agriculture - US Forest Service||Disapproved|
|Department of Agriculture - US Forest Service||Expired|
|Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service||Disapproved|
|Department of Agriculture - Agricultural Research Service||Active|
|Department of the Interior - National Business Center/Aviation Management Directorate (NBC/AMD)||Active|
|DOJ (Department of Justice) - Queen Anne's County Office of the Sheriff (State unknown)||Expired|
|Eastern Gateway Community College||Active|
|FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation)||Active|
|Gadsden Police Department (State unknown)||Active|
|Georgia Tech Police Department, Office of Emergency Preparedness||Disapproved|
|Georgia Tech Research Institute||Active|
|Hays County Emergency Service Office (State unknown)||Expired|
|Kansas State University||Active|
|Mesa County (Colo.) Sheriff's Office||Active|
|Miami-Dade Police Department||Active|
|Middle Tennessee State University||Active|
|Mississippi Department of Marine Resources||Active|
|Mississippi State University||Active|
|Montgomery County Sheriff's Office (State unknown)||Expired|
|NASA (National Aeronautics and Space Administration)||Active|
|New Mexico Tech||Active|
|New Mexico State University Physical Sciences Laboratory (NMSU-PSL)||Active|
|Nicholls State University||Expired|
|NOAA (National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration)||Expired|
|Ogden (Utah) Police Department||Active|
|Orange County Sheriff's Office (State unknown)||Active|
|Otter Tail County (State unknown)||Disapproved|
|Polk County Sheriff's Office (State unknown)||Active|
|Seattle Police Department||Active|
|Texas A&M University Corpus Christi||Active|
|Texas A&M University - TEES (Texas Engineering Experiment Station)||Active|
|Texas Department of Public Safety||Expired|
|Texas State University||Active|
|University of Alaska Fairbanks||Active|
|University of Arizona||Expired|
|University of Colorado||Active|
|University of Connecticut||Active|
|University of Florida||Active|
|University of Michigan||Expired|
|University of North Dakota||Active|
|University of Wisconsin||Expired|
|USMC (United States Marine Corps)||Active|
|Utah State University||Active|
|Virginia Commonwealth University||Expired|
|Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University||Active|
|Washington State Department of Transportation||Expired|
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