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DHL Express and intelligent autonomous aerial vehicle (drone) company EHang have launched a regular drone delivery route to overcome last mile delivery issues in urban China. The new customized route, which has been exclusively created for a single DHL customer, covers a distance of approximately eight kilometers between the customer premises and the DHL service center in Liaobu, Dongguan, Guangdong Province.

These regular packages were previously delivered by road, typical taking around 40 minutes, but the drones can do it in just eight minutes. The drones take off and land on intelligent parcel boxes, which were specially developed for autonomous loading and unloading operations. These platforms are integrated into the classic sorting, scanning, and storage automation processes of express delivery.

“The new intelligent drone delivery solution overcomes the complex road conditions and traffic congestion common to urban areas,” states the official press release. “It reduces one-way delivery time from 40 minutes to only eight minutes and can save costs of up to 80% per delivery, with reduced energy consumption and carbon footprint compared with road transportation.”

The EHang Falcon smart drone, with eight propellers on four arms, is designed with multiple redundant systems for full backup, and smart and secure flight control modules. As a fully-automated solution, the drones, which can carry up to 5kg of cargo per flight, take off and land atop intelligent cabinets that were specifically developed for the fully autonomous loading and offloading of the shipment. The intelligent cabinets connect with automated sorting, scanning, and storage processes. In the future, drones may also feature high-tech functions such as facial recognition and ID scanning for smartphone-location based deliveries.

Drone delivery routes are likely to emerge where alternatives are expensive or time-consuming, such as congested cities, over waterways, or where road laws prohibit delivery processes. The DHL EHang project is one of the first regular commercial drone delivery routes in action but many other logistics firms have completed successful pilot programs. UPS’s On-Road Integrated Optimization Navigation routing software, demonstrated a reduction of just one mile per driver per day over one year can save UPS up to $50 million from its 66,000 delivery drivers on the road each day.

Amazon is also a market leader and innovator in the field of drone deliveries, but seem to have “dropped” plans to parachute parcels to customers from drone-planes flying over the target address. In 2017, the company filed US Patent Application 14/752,671 which states: “Manoeuvering a package following in-flight release from a UAV. A package delivery system can be implemented to forcefully propel a package from a UAV, while the UAV is in motion,” but very little has been heard about the technology since.

Drones look set to become important parts of the urban environment but their emergence has so far been slow and stunted. Isolated routes are a challenge but an entire drone air network moving physical things around the city securely with unprecedented speed and efficiency is a very different prospect.

“Drones are expected to play a key role in the smart city environment, providing support for a variety of applications such as medical, package delivery, policing, traffic monitoring and firefighting,” states Khan M.A. et al in their 2018 review of drones for smart cities. “However, challenges such as safety, security, and privacy in densely populated regions remain as a concern in connecting drones as part of the smart city.”

The sheer density of buildings in cities raises collision-risk concerns, then consider birds, airborne litter, and other aircraft, including other drones, and you start to get an idea of the safety challenges facing urban drone delivery systems. All of this without mentioning the risk of technical malfunction, inadequate maintenance, or misuse by its operator. Severe weather can also pose significant challenges. There are, no doubt, conditions that would ground drone services, dependence on those services could have knock-on socio-economic consequences.

The security perspective is also complex. Physical interception of drones for the theft of the package or the drone itself is a concern but not the biggest security problem. A variety of hacking methods could be used to take control of drones for theft, disruption of service, or to use drones as weapons in some kind of attack. A drone’s navigation system runs on GPS, and due to its open nature, the unencrypted and unauthenticated GPS signals can be easily spoofed, even with a cellphone. Wi-Fi Jamming is another possible attack that could cause the loss of control of the drone’s communication system causing it to crash.

Hackers might not break through drone cybersecurity to control the aircraft but to steal your personal data. Whether based on the drone or in the cloud, hackers would be able to access any information pertinent to the delivery, including address, physical access codes, order history, even times of day when you are home and not. Hackers may be seasoned criminals, national governments, competing companies, activists, or bored teenagers. Protecting against potential privacy-related malpractice by delivery companies themselves is another issue to address.

How and when we can overcome these problems is unclear. Nevertheless, even isolated and simple projects like that of DHL and EHang in China mark the beginning of the highly-anticipated introduction of drones for deliveries and other functions. The air-ways are a relatively untapped space creating new value and opportunities to progressive smart cities.

“This marks a new beginning in building air logistics for smart cities. Riding on today’s launch, we expect smart drone delivery as an innovative logistics solution to be expanded and realized in more areas,” Mr. Hu Huazhi, Founder & CEO of EHang, who he is excited to be part of “building the eco-system for a multi-dimensional urban air transport system.”