DHL Will Fly First Unmanned Drone Route in Europe

DHL obtains permission to fly an unmanned drone to an island in the North Sea. It's the first time a drone will be allowed for commercial deliveries.
Posted at 4:17 PM, Sep 25, 2014

For the first time, an unmanned drone will be delivering packages to residents of a remote European island. It’s the only time any government has allowed commercial drone use and it’s not headed by Google or Amazon, but DHL.

Deutsche Post AG, better known in the U.S. as DHL, is Europe’s largest parcel service. Their taxi-yellow quadcopters have been tasked with taking medicine to Juist, an island in the North Sea only accessible by boat or plane.

CEO Jürgen Gerdes says"Our DHL parcelcopter 2.0 is already one of the safest and most reliable flight systems in its class." 

That safety will be put to the test as the drone flies around seven and a half miles to Juist, completely automated. DHL explains in a press release the drone will be — for the first time — out of the pilot's field of vision and the pilot will "not have to take any action at all during any phase of the flight."

DHL launched its “parcelcopter” in December of 2013.  Before any drones got off the ground, the carrier consulted with the German Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure to establish a restricted flight area to the island.  Once established, tourists and island residents will be able to order medicine online and have it delivered to island’s pharmacy.  DHL does not have any plans to expand the program for “normal parcel deliveries.”

Around that same time in December, American online giants Amazon and Google were beginning to test the same idea.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced on 60 Minutes his online retail giant would push forward on Amazon Prime Air, with drone-delivered packages to your door in about 30 minutes. Recently, Google has unveiled its own craft, Project Wing, capable of vertical takeoff and gently lowering boxes with an onboard winch.  (Video via Amazon | Google)

Each is facing legal roadblocks to operating the drones in domestic airspace. Currently, Google tests Project Wing in Australia.  

The Federal Aviation Administration said in 2013 it won’t permit autonomous flights without pilots in the U.S. until it establishes its own rules. The administration is expected to rule on commercial drones weighing under 55 pounds later this year.

Either way it seems DHL's international reach helped it find a suitable space for its project. Bloomberg's headline is clear: DHL "beat" its U.S. competitors, but it's uncertain if being first will have any advantage in this market.

However, The Guardian points out the advantages DHL's island hopper has over similar projects.

"In finding the niche in Juist, the company has overcome several of the difficulties that Amazon faces in launching its own service: the copters do not have to navigate complex urban and suburban environments, nor do they have to deal with the possibility of vandalism or theft once they land."

Even so, DHL admits the drone will continue to be perfected as it delivers. The service will only be allowed to operate on certain days of the week and under ideal weather conditions.

This video contains images from Deutsche Post AG and Getty Images