Drones looking to deliver across tricky Swiss terrain
Quadcopter being trialled by Swiss Post

What if the ring of a doorbell could be replaced by the buzz of a drone? The work of the traditional neighbourhood postman may be supplemented by a flying delivery as several mail companies are toying with the idea of using drones to deliver straight to your door.

In July, Swiss Post announced the launch of a month-long trial of a delivery-by-drone service, to test its technical viability and cost-effectiveness. The company’s unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) carry parcels of up to 1kg in weight over more than 10km on a single battery charge, said the company.

A small but mountainous country, drone deliveries could make all the difference for Switzerland’s far-off villages. Rather than substitute the conventional postal system, Swiss Post sees drones filling a niche, such as reaching rural communities cut off by bad weather or high-priority consignments. “The potential for application is varied: from delivery in peripheral regions to urgent goods delivery,” said Dieter Bambauer, Leiter PostLogistics, for Swiss Post, in a statement.

The quadcopters are a product of US manufacturer, Matternet, which has worked on delivery drones for rich and poor countries since 2011 – particularly, getting medicines to the 1 billion people in the developing world without access to reliable roads. Matternet’s UAVs got their first outing delivering lightweight packages in Haiti after the 2010 earthquake.

 

Swiss Post's potential new delivery service

 

Swiss Post is not the only one experimenting with the new airmail. DHL launched a trial in September last year to deliver medicines and urgent goods to the North Sea island of Juist, Germany. DHL’s parcelcopter travels 12km to the island, filling in the gaps left by ferry and conventional flight schedules. 

Online retailer, Amazon, is also leading the drone drive, spurred on by the rise and rise of e-commerce. In 2014, Amazon Prime Air announced plans to develop its own UAV system to deliver parcels to customers within 30-minutes. The reality is still some way off, said the company, pending changes to current US aviation rules.

Widespread use of postie drones is “still fantasy” agrees Swiss Post’s Bambauer. It will be a while before delivery drones are commonplace, he said, as the technology faces restrictions from government airspace regulations and UAVs’ limited battery life.

“Today, we may laugh about this new transport or delivery possibility the way people at the end of the 19th century laughed about the first glider,” said Bambauer. “However, we are guessing that specific applications will be realistic within five to ten years.”