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Santa on a drone flying over a city at night

Santa’s little UAV helper – Christmas delivered by drone?

December 12, 2023

Many of us expected this Christmas to be the first one where flying reindeer are replaced with flying robots, but has it really happened?

While the delivery drone sector has undoubtedly experienced challenges, some locations are seeing UAVs as a permanent fixture in the last mile supply chain. We took a look at the situation around the world.

Royal Mail has been conducting trials of sending mail by drone to offshore locations in the UK. In partnership with drone manufacturers Windracers and Speedbird, autonomous flights have been carried out in the Orkney Islands, Shetland Islands and the Isles of Scilly. Letters and parcels up to 6kg can be carried, but maybe don’t rely on having your stocking filled by this service as Speedbird operators reported the loss of a drone on 27th November as it made a “controlled descent” into the sea (thankfully with no payload on this occasion!)

If you’re celebrating Christmas in Shenzhen this year, your turkey could take to the air again. Food deliveries in this busy urban area have been established for some time, although UAVs aren’t able to deliver directly to customers’ doors but rather to pickup kiosks in the street. Operated by Meituan, China’s most popular food delivery platform, the UAV relies on human workers to place the payload underneath the aircraft, then autonomously finds its way to the drop off location.

Alphabet’s Wing has been operating in Australia for a few years, and states that it makes around 1000 deliveries a day, from groceries to medicines. The UAVs fly at altitudes up to 75m and speeds of around 100kmph. Once they reach their delivery point (an area selected by the customer), they hover and lower the goods to the ground on a tether before unclipping themselves and departing. The 5kg drones fly autonomously but are monitored by a pilot and can support a payload up to 1kg, so great for last minute small gifts but Santa’s not going to get a full stocking delivered this way!

US-based Zipline was one of the earliest operators of delivery by drone and launched a medical delivery service in Rwanda in 2016. Zip drones carried a payload up to 1.5kg and parachuted supplies of blood into rural areas. While such a delivery isn’t usually on anyone’s Christmas list, it’s an undeniably vital service. In 2022, Zipline confirmed that it plans to expand into other sectors in a wider-reaching partnership with the Rwandan government.

Not quite in time for Christmas but promising for the future, Zipline completed its first Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) flight in the United States on 17th November in Salt Lake City, Utah. With a relaxation in the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulations, Zipline can now ramp up its US autonomous delivery service from its current 10,000 commercial deliveries per week. The most recent iteration of their logistics drone uses an innovative acoustic perception and avoidance system to support the more traditional camera-based vision system and manage suburban maneuvers.

Residents in Italy could find delivery drones a reality in time for next Christmas as Amazon’s Prime Air announced they will be operating in cities in the UK and Italy before the end of 2024. Their UAVs use vertical take-off technology and horizontal, wing-borne flight to carry packages up to around 2.2kg. Amazon suggests that they will be ideal for deliveries such as batteries, and, with deliveries possible in about an hour, could be a welcome addition to Christmas day when it turns out Santa forgot to include the AAs required for the kids’ toys.

Drones for last mile delivery
Safe to say, logistics drones are becoming more instrumental in supply chains as technology improves, flight regulations relax and, importantly, customers begin to accept drone delivery as a viable option. While not quite as environmentally-friendly as Santa’s reindeers, they are considerably more sustainable than emission-heavy trucks and can reduce delivery times substantially in urban areas.

We have range of autofocus-zoom and board cameras suitable for UAVs and ROVs, take a look at the solutions we offer. We also have a comparison document to help you select the right camera for your drone application but if in doubt, get in touch with our team of vision experts.

And of course, enjoy your Christmas however it’s delivered!

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