Watch Out, Amazon: DHL Tests Drug-Delivery Drone

DHL’s ‘Paketkopter’ quad-rotor remote-controlled drug-delivery vehicle.

Amazon is apparently not alone in its desire to use miniature drones to deliver packages.

On the morning of Monday, Dec. 9, employees at the Bonn, Germany headquarters of package-delivery giant DHL challenged Amazon’s dominance of the skies by having medicine delivered from a local pharmacy via a mustard-yellow package-carrying helicopter the Germans dubbed “Paketkopter.”

The quad-rotored mini-drone – painted with the carrier’s logo on its trademark background of mustard-yellow – flew a box of medicines from a launching point near the pharmacy, above traffic and across the Rhine River to DHL’s headquarters just over a kilometer away. It made the flight in about two minutes, was unloaded quickly and returned to the launch team near the pharmacy.

It made the trip a total of five times Monday but will keep flying all week (Here’s the video). This first phase of DHL’s experiment with drone delivery is more than a one-time demonstration; the company is considering a same-day delivery service that would small, time-sensitive packages of up to 6.6 pounds, but has no immediate plans to put it into effect, according to a DHL spokesperson quoted in The Wall Street Journal.

Amazon has owned total mindshare of the still-imaginary drone-based package delivery market since CEO Jeff Bezos gushed about his plans for Amazon PrimeAir during a TV interview last week.

The plan generated immediate controversy due to the negative image of drones following heavy use for surveillance and targeted anti-personnel strikes by the U.S. military in Afghanistan and Iraq. Within the United States, the FAA, FTC and a host of consumer-protection groups objected to the possibility that thousands of autonomous drones would be hovering over U.S. cities, potentially invading the privacy and endangering the lives of those who might run afoul of either cameras or rotors.

Autonomous drones are virtually banned in the U.S. due to FAA concerns they would interfere with airline traffic.

In Germany, drones can’t take off or land in populated areas, have to be remote controlled rather than fly on their own using GPS, and can’t fly higher than 50 feet above the ground – meaning any battle for package-carrier air superiority will be fought out in easy view of potential customers and victims.

DHL may eventually offer drone deliveries, but is using the special pharmacy deliveries to employees as a pilot test, according to Deutsche Post spokeswoman Dunja Kuhlmann.

Bezos predicted Amazon could be flying packages within four or five years. No actual Amazon drones have yet made an appearance, giving DHL a lead in the market simply by having a working drone and processes in place to order and deliver products using it, even while downplaying the whole idea. “Our plans are in the early stages and there are a number of scenarios we’re evaluating, including delivering medicine that’s needed quickly, or to hard-to-reach places,” Kuhlmann told the Journal.

U.S.-based delivery service United Parcel Service (UPS) is also considering deliveries via drone, which it revealed a day after Bezos’ revelation about Amazon PrimeAir.

Though the company offered no details, or even much confirmation, a spokesperson made a point of saying UPS “invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future,” according to a Dec. 3 Engadget story, which also pointed out UPS already offers edgy services, including 3D printing from some of its retail locations.


Image: DHL