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Propwash #10 - Undelivered parcels and 5G drones

Propwash
Propwash #10 - Undelivered parcels and 5G drones
By Nihal Mohan • Issue #10 • View online
Welcome to the 10th issue of Propwash! This week we cover -
  • DHL’s drone delivery program shutdown rumors
  • 5G racing drones
  • DJI’s market share in Public Safety, and other stories

Editor’s Note: This week’s issue is going out on Friday 9AM PT. We’ll revert to the normal schedule on Thursday.
📦 Undelivered Parcels?
Delivery drones made big news in 2012-13 with Amazon, Google, FedEx and others announcing their drone programs to experiment with delivery and logistics. It was conveniently timed just before the peak of the drone hype cycle, generating lots of publicity. It’s been almost a decade since then and cracks have started to appear in some programs - Just this month, there were several reports that Amazon’s Prime Air delivery program is in trouble due to management issues leading them to lay off several people in their UK office.
The German logistics giant DHL, started its drone delivery program along with the others mentioned above in 2013. They unveiled a quadcopter dubbed the Parcelcopter with the goal of delivering packages to inaccessible or remote places. Over the last 8 years the program has iterated extensively, building several prototypes and ideas including a “Skyport” where drones would dock and deliver goods.
Four Generations of the DHL Parcelcopter
Four Generations of the DHL Parcelcopter
While DHL started with an in-house drone program, they eventually partnered with existing drone companies to capitalize on their expertise. These partnerships included the Chinese drone/eVTOL firm eHang and later with the German delivery drone manufacturer Wingcopter. The last generation Parcelcopter you see in the image above is a rebranded Wingcopter 178.
With all the news and partnerships, one might assume all is well for the delivery giant. But a new report by the German news outlet WELT says that the program is being shut down. This is despite DHL releasing more press material for the DHL Parcelcopter just days earlier.
We are not continuing the Parcelcopter project,” Alexander Edenhofer, a DHL spokesman, told Benedikt Fuest of WELT. They plan to discontinue their partnership with Wingcopter as well citing that the economics of the program not working out. DHL’s partnership with Wingcopter was undergoing trials in Tanzania for medical deliveries.
This news is revealing in two fronts.
  • DHL finds last-mile delivery using drones unfeasible to scale, despite Google Wing and others still continuing with their programs.
  • DHL is instead trying out middle-mile delivery using drones
The second point comes is supported by DHL’s new partnerships with Bulgarian Drone manufacturer Dronamics, and their purchase of 12 battery powered long range aircraft from Eviation. These have considerably larger payload capacity in the order of hundreds or thousands of kg compared to Wingcopter’s 6 kg and are better suited for transporting large amounts of goods between two delivery hubs.
This points to an interesting divergence in the drone delivery market. While Google Wing is doing point to point deliveries from a centralized hub, others are interested in the economic benefits of middle-mile deliveries. The models are partly exclusive - Wing’s drones aren’t suited for large payload capacity and volume and vice-versa. It is conceivable that both models find their niche and flourish independently for their respective business cases. This space will be interesting to watch out and see how the evolution goes.
📻 What about 5G drones?
Last month I asked, What is a 4G drone anyway? In light the newly announced Parrot Anafi Ai, I was questioning its usability in real-world applications given its low flight time and the slow transfer rates for uploading the captured data to the cloud. The drone is still new and there’s a long time left before it hits the market and third party reviews start pouring in, so it remains to be seen how effective it really is.
But the drone is brand-new and is still making waves in the news cycle. The most recent was a partnership with Verizon in the USA. But 4G is so 2012, the buzzword you need for 2021 is 5G! If you were disappointed at the lack of 5G drones in the market, Drone Racing League (DRL) has got you covered with their announcement of the Magenta Drone.
Striking magenta and a Unique frame design
Striking magenta and a Unique frame design
The Magenta is equipped with striking looks, a top speed of 60 mph and more importantly, 5G connectivity in partnership with T-Mobile. In a world where 4G drones have questionable use, do 5G drones make any sense? Does 5G make any sense on a drone when the rest of the industry is waiting for 6G because 5G’s “killer app” will be 6G?
Well, kind of …
DRL wants to livestream footage from the drones directly to the internet using the 5G technology. There are three things that set it apart from being more than a publicity stunt-
  • DRL races are usually indoors in static locations. Which means that the race location can be scouted beforehand to ensure that there is adequate 5G coverage and speed.
  • Racing drones need to reduce weight and power consumption to maximize speed, So adding another radio system for relaying video is going to be a consideration. Why not utilize existing cellular infrastructure instead?
  • DRL is an online spectator sport with a majority of its audience watching online or on TV. The traditional method of passing through the FPV feed from the pilot’s view to the world feed has lower quality and can suffer from latency.
What makes DRL’s announcement interesting is that it’s a very narrow application of 5G in drones. Most cellular connected drones haven’t made any impact on the market, and we’re yet to see how the Parrot Anafi Ai performs (Subscribe so you don’t miss out the review coverage on Propwash). What DRL has done here is more measured, and could prove its worth in the future. The drone is expected to be seen in action during the Major League Baseball event this week.
DJI's Newscorner
The world’s biggest drone company is never out of the news cycle and there were several notable news from DJI this week. Here’s a run down of the essential ones -
Public Safety
DJI leads market share (unsurprisingly) in the public safety sector. A new report by DroneResponders shows DJI leading with a whopping 90% share while Autel, Skydio, Parrot and FLIR round up the top five a long way behind.
DJI's stronghold in the Public safety sector
DJI's stronghold in the Public safety sector
It remains to be seen how the recent news of DJI being banned from government use and concerns over security and data privacy will affect these numbers in the future.
Flagship store no more
While the DJI enjoys good market share and news on the public safety front, it’s not all roses for the Chinese giant either. The company is shutting down its flagship store in Hong Kong. The 10000 sq ft store was inaugurated in 2016 and was located in prime real estate, Causeway Bay and showcased all of DJI’s products and Drone imagery.
The shutdown is attributed to Hong Kong’s new drone laws that require registration of all drones between 250g and 7kg, along with third party insurance. The pilots are mandated to go through an online training program too. The pandemic did play its part in the decision with the business center seeing large vacancies, and a 94% drop in visitors.
New agricultural drones
In the enterprise world on the other hand, DJI announces that the Agras T30 and T10 spraying drones are now available internationally. These were only available in China, and are the latest evolution of DJI’s agricultural enterprise offerings offering increased capacity among other features.
Aircraft inspection
The Dutch company Mainblades, showcased an inspection of the Airbus A330 using the DJI Matrice 300. This is a deep application of drones for inspection, and the results look very promising. Traditional aircraft inspection is usually done indoors, and takes a lot of man-hours. This automated inspection using drones was done in under 2 hours and uses machine learning based algorithms for detecting defects and other issues.
🚁 Other buzz in the drone space
Hardware
  • DroneDeploy, the leading Flight Planning and “Site reality platform” announced that they are acquiring Rocos, a New Zealand based ground robotics software company. This follows the Silicon Valley startup’s trend of integrating ground robots to their site monitoring solution after adding support for the Boston Dynamics’ Spot.
  • Speaking of Spot, there’s a new robo-dog in the market. The Chinese consumer electronics giant Xiaomi announced the cyberdog, a sub $2000 quadruped robot that’s also going to be open source. This brings in competition to the Spot at an unprecedented price point potentially leading to increased adoption of ground robots for inspections.
  • New details arise for NASA’s next Mars drone, hinting that it might be a hexacopter with six rotors each the size of the currently flying Ingenuity helicopter. Just like Ingenuity, the craft is expected to be folded into a smaller volume during transport.
  • Interesting research from Sony could bring in curved sensors to cameras. Camera sensors are typically flat and having them curved can reduce their profile, allowing for smaller form factors. While the research is aimed at mobile phone cameras, the technology can be adapted to drones further reducing gimbal sizes, allowing for smaller and more compact drones.
Leadership and Policy
  • Randal Warnas, the ex-FLIR guy who was appointed CEO of Autel Robotics just two months ago announced in a LinkedIn post that he is leaving the role citing nepotism and poor upper management practices. The decision must have been very tough, but kudos to him for standing up for what is right.
  • The proposed US infrastructure amendment bill might end up banning Chinese drones from being used for the projects, further worsening the tight spot that DJI is already in with respect to regulations and security concerns in other countries.
❄ Drone footage of the week
Check out this smooth single-shot drone vide of the Mercedes F1 team factory. Single-shot FPV videos are becoming increasingly popular and we can expect a lot more from the future, particularly from the Real Estate and Entertainment sector.
Drone Tour of the Mercedes F1 Factory!
Drone Tour of the Mercedes F1 Factory!
💡Not Drones
Every week I also share something unrelated to drones, but makes for an interesting read. This week, Roots of Progress author Jason Crawford asks “Why nuclear has been a flop” and proceeds to show how it was never the technology that was the problem. Cumbersome regulations and licenses make it difficult to get a plant running, and regulatory hurdles become the guillotine that came down nuclear power’s neck.
The essay is a reminder for us in the drone industry as well, to ensure that regulatory oversight is balanced with ease of doing business and technological progress. As we enter the drone age, there are still many with a strong fear of the unknown, and reply on rules from manned aviation to regulate drones. This is dangerous, and we as a community need to stand united to ensure that responsible, reasonable and well-thought-out rules are at formed.
🏁 Wrapping up
Congratulations on making it all the way down here. Hope you enjoyed this issue of Propwash. Subscribe if you haven’t already.
What did you like about this issue? Is there something you want me to cover in the future? Or if you have anything to discuss, reply to this mail. I answer every mail I receive.
Keep flying,
Nihal
Did you enjoy this issue?
Nihal Mohan

Every week, I share the most important ideas, news and insights from all over the drone space and tell you what matters.

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