​Game of drones: How airborne delivery tests are starting to take off

With Amazon cleared to test drone deliveries, and DHL in Germany and Swiss Post also running trials, Finland is the latest country to conduct a pilotless airborne mail pilot.
Written by Eeva Haaramo, Contributor
In a Finnish drone trial, a robotic helicopter delivers parcels to an island close to Helsinki.
Image: Posti

Drones could soon be delivering our mail - or at least our parcels. Finland's national postal company, Posti, has successfully tested the use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) - in other words, a drone - for delivering online purchases.

In the recent four-day experiment in the Finnish capital Helsinki, parcels weighing under 3kg (6.6lb) were flown by a robotic helicopter between the mainland and the island of Suomenlinna, a Unesco World Heritage site 4km (2.5 miles) from the city centre.

All other mail, such as letters, to the island's 800 or so residents take the traditional boat delivery route.

"The goal was to use real parcels to test how ready this technology is [for deliveries]," says Jukka Rosenberg, senior vice president of parcel and logistics services at Posti.

Rosenberg believes drones could offer fast deliveries and a cost-effective way to access remote areas. But the full commercialisation is some way off. While the tests ran smoothly and parcels reached their destination, the trial also revealed that limitations still remain.

One major challenge is weather, a big factor given Finland's frequently hard winters. In the first test flight, windy conditions forced the eight-propeller helicopter drone to land outside its landing area.

Although the drone flew automatically, take-offs and landings were managed by a remote pilot for safety reasons. Part of the trial was also moved to another location in Helsinki because flying over water caused slight disturbances to radio frequencies.

"From our point of view, the trial was a success because we could identify some issues on a technical level [that still need development]. At the same time the functionality of the basic concept was validated," says Tero Heinonen, CEO of Sharper Shape, which provided the robotic helicopter system for the trial.

Sharper Shape specialises in UAV systems for asset management, such as the inspection of power lines and railways. Its drones are equipped with several cameras and a laser-based observation system to detect obstacles.

In the trial with Posti, Sharper Shape used 4G/LTE cellular networks to create two communications links to ensure reliable connection between the pilot and the robotic helicopter.

Finland takes a liberal stance

While Posti claims to be the first company in Europe to trial drones for mail delivery in an urban area, the idea is not new. Among others Swiss Post, DHL in Germany and, most famously, online retail giant Amazon have all previously announced delivery-drone experiments.

All of which suggests the arrival of delivery drones is more 'when' than 'if'. Currently, there are limitations in the shape and size of parcels that can be delivered via drones as well as the flight range which, according to Sharper Shapes, is between a 15km and 30km round trip. Of course, with aviation there are also always safety issues.

"A lot depends on the development of so-called sense-and-avoid technology. In other words, when UAVs will be capable of [autonomously] deflecting from obstacles and each other," says Jukka Hannola, chief advisor at the Finnish Transport Safety Agency, or Trafi, which authorised Posti's experiment.

"It is hard to forecast, but I think it's still going to take a few years [for drones to become widely used in deliveries]."

Which leads to another major issue: regulation. When the US Federal Aviation Administration cleared Amazon to experiment with drone deliveries in March, it stipulated they could only be done in daylight and operators need to maintain a visual line of sight - not particularly delivery-friendly.

However, Finland has taken another approach. The country claims to have one of the world's most flexible environments for automated traffic and plans to create an easy environment for the testing, development, and operation of unmanned aircrafts.

"The airspace structure in Finland offers great opportunities to arrange [segregated] test-flight areas also for more demanding beyond-line-of-sight experiments," says Hannola. "It's a high priority in Finland to make these kinds of tests possible, and this is a clear difference between us and more conservative countries."

Heinonen believes drone deliveries will be commonplace by 2020, and Rosenberg agrees: "This world is not quite ready yet, but we are hopeful."

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