Thuisbezorgd.nl tests meal delivery by drone in Amsterdam
A drone that delivers a meal: in some countries it is already a reality, but in the Netherlands we can hardly imagine your pizza or coffee with croissant being delivered by a drone. Nevertheless, on the initiative of Dutch Drone Delta, Just Eat Takeaway part Thuisbezorgd.nl is experimenting with this innovative form of meal delivery. Thursday afternoon, the first test flight takes place in Amsterdam around five o’clock, where the IJ is flown by a drone with a meal on board.
Drone delivery on the rise
The pilot flight in Amsterdam is not so much intended to show that it is possible to deliver a meal by drone. It is technically perfectly possible to deliver small packages or even freshly prepared meals by drone to customers. In a suburb of Dublin, drones from Irish startup Manna Aero regularly fly around with Ben&Jerry’s Thai curries and ice cream on board.
In the Australian capital Canberra, Google sister company Wing has been offering such a service since 2019. Recently, Wing even commissioned the world’s first drone delivery station on the roof of a mall. This gives retailers an extra opportunity to deliver customers in the immediate vicinity without the need to build additional infrastructure on the ground. Customers can place an order via an app and choose “drone delivery” as an option.
Not hindered by road congestion, a delivery drone can take the shortest route to a delivery address — ideally as the crow flies. Arriving at the delivery location, in the case of Manna Aero and Wing, the order is hoisted down a winch and dropped into the garden or driveway. The drones basically fly autonomously — so no drone pilot is needed — and plot the route independently, taking into account obstacles such as tall buildings and other air traffic. Due to safety, drone flights are monitored from a central station.
Not only can a drone shorten the distance, nor is it basically no emissions: drones are electrically powered, and provided that the batteries are charged by green electricity, there is basically sustainable aviation (the production of the drone and the rare disregard raw materials used in the batteries). This environmental benefit will continue to outweigh, especially in densely populated areas. This while home delivery puts an increasing pressure on urban mobility: in this regard, a buzzing electrically powered drone clearly has the advantage over a roaring diesel van in the street.
Although it is not clear exactly what the cost per flight is now, the providers argue that drone delivery can be a lot cheaper than traditional forms of delivery, especially if the volume increases. Customers are also quite willing to pay a few extra euros for emergency delivery by drone. There was even someone who paid €5 delivery costs to deliver a 79p piece of broccoli, Manna Aero-ceo Bobby Healy once told. The question is, of course, whether that willingness to pay remains when the news is off, and to what extent the delivery costs can be further reduced.
Drone delivery also has drawbacks. For example, residents in Canberra complained about the noise that the drones were making. The sound of a drone flying over reminded people of a swarm of raging bees. Wing adapted the design of the drones and mounted quieter propellers.
There were also concerns about privacy: after all, the drones are equipped with cameras, partly to keep an eye on the environment and the delivery location. Wing, however, swears that the images are not stored and serve purely to support flight operations.
Another problem came from a rather unexpected angle. Wing’s delivery drones had to stay grounded recently, after a number of aircraft in Canberra were attacked by ravens. Because of the breeding season (in Australia it is now spring), the birds showed extra territorial urges, which even led to direct attacks on the drones.
Wing then engaged experts in the field of bird behavior to conduct further research. For the time being, the drones are kept to the ground, until more insight is obtained into the behavior of the birds. The flights may not be able to resume until the breeding season has ended.
Despite incidents such as the bird attacks in Canberra, it is now clear that drone delivery is relatively safe. Both Manna Aero and Wing have already operated tens of thousands of flights without significant incidents. In the field of safety, two types of risks are identified in unmanned aviation: it and s.
These risks must first be carefully mapped out and overcome by the operator by so-called mitigating measures, before they can fly. Think of special flight routes for drones where no other air traffic should come (). Or mounting an emergency parachute, which is thrown off should a drone show a fatal malfunction during the flight ().
For a long time, it was impossible at all to carry out commercial drone flights over urban area. This has changed with the introduction of European regulations, which applies both to recreational drones and to business-used drones. The regulation is risk-based: those who can demonstrate that a certain type of drone flight can be carried out in a safe way will in principle be licensed to carry out that type of flights. In the case of the Netherlands, the Environment and Transport Inspectorate (ILT) is the authority that issues the permit.
Despite the strict safety requirements, it has sometimes come to a crash abroad, including in the Swiss city of Zurich, where Matternet delivery drones fly back and forth with blood samples between hospital and laboratory. In the summer of 2019, things went wrong once and a drone fell out of the sky. In doing so, the cord of the safety parachute that should have stopped the falling drone broke. On the ground, except one hair, a group of children playing was missed. But after extensive investigation into the crash and further improvements to the drones — including an improved parachute system — the flights were allowed to resume again.
The pilot flight in Amsterdam
For this first trial of meal delivery by drone in the Netherlands, the drone rises from the A’dam Tower, and then crosses the IJ. For practical and symbolic reasons, the roof of the new headquarters of Just Eat Takeaway, on Piet Heinkade, was chosen for practical and symbolic reasons. It is less than a kilometer flying as the crow flies; by road it is about a distance of almost six km. There is no flying above buildings: it is regularly a bridge too far, due to the weight of the drone.
The test is an initiative of the Dutch Drone Delta collective, which was founded at the end of 2020 with the aim of researching new forms of urban air mobility. The flight was accompanied by engineering and consultancy firm Antea Group. Furthermore, the Municipality of Amsterdam, Amsterdam Drone Lab, Just Eat Takeaway (parent company of Thuisbezorgd.nl) and consultancy company AirHub are involved in the implementation. The drone is from Drone Delivery Services.
Somewhere it is remarkable that Just Eat Takeaway is involved in this trial: a year ago, chief executive Jitse Groen stated that he did not believe in meal-delivery drones: “Because it is impossible. Tell me how that drone comes in here,” Groen said in an interview with NRC at the beginning of August 2020. “Can such a drone tap the window? These are mainly stories from companies without a profit model. Who make a loss on every order and say, don’t worry, if the robots come, it’ll all be fine.”
Since the test flight takes place in the controlled airspace of Schiphol, a flight plan has been submitted in advance to Air Traffic Control Netherlands — something that is mandatory for all drone flights that take place in so-called CTRs. The Amsterdam Police Unit also supervises the execution of the test. KPN’s 5G network is used for data connection to the drone.
The route that the drone will fly is programmed. A drone pilot on the balcony of the headquarters of Just Eat Takeaway (also arrival location) can take control if necessary. During the crossing, the drone is kept in sight from a Rijkswaterstaat patrol boat, which is in contact with the drone pilot. So there is not really flying out of sight of the pilot; this test involves a so-called extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) flight. After taking off from the A’dam Tower, the drone does not fly higher than 45 meters.
The drone that is being flown is a device from the Dutch manufacturer: the Acecore NOA, supplied by Drone Delivery Services. This is a multirotor device that can carry a total of 20 kg of payload. During the test, a maximum of 4 kg extra weight is flown, consisting of a warm box containing a meal. For safety, a so-called (NOTAM) is published, so that other airspace users know that a drone is being flown above the IJ and can avoid the area.
One of the most important objectives of the test flight in Amsterdam is to gain insight into the social support for meal-delivery drones. How do passers-by and local residents experience this flight, what are the effects on the physical environment and what is the added value of this form of delivery? To clarify that, during the day, people are questioned by a group of ROC students and Antea Group. In addition, Antea Group will do various sound measurements.
Under the banner of Dutch Drone Delta, experiments with drone delivery took place earlier, but with the focus of delivering a package on a ship moored in the port of Rotterdam. Social acceptance was a less significant issue; a drone flying to a ship in a port area will not quickly cause disruption. In drone flights over the urban area, this is a completely different story.
It may well be that it appears that there is still little support for meal-delivery drones, but that does not mean that in the Netherlands there is no future for drone delivery in the short term. After all, our country also experimented with drones that fly emergency medical goods, by Dutch Drone Delta partner ANWB Medical Air Assistance. It is expected that people are much less likely to object to this, given the greater social interest. Of course, this also falls or stands with the frequency of drone flights and the degree of nuisance, both in terms of sound and visual, regardless of the character of the drone flights.
Incidentally, it is certainly not realistic to think that drone delivery will be offered as a delivery option in the Netherlands in the short term. This has, among other things, to do with the fact that the regulations regarding flying drones out of sight (BVLOS) flying drones is still very strict, and therefore cannot be widely rolled out. And as long as BVLOS flying is still in its infancy, it is virtually impossible to have the flights take place automatically, which is an important precondition for scaling up drone delivery.
It does not help that the airspace above the Randstad, in particular, is very busy. Not only by road planes, but certainly at low altitude by trauma helicopters, Coast Guard aircraft, police helicopters and the so-called general aviation, the collective term for recreational aviation. Closing sections of airspace or the construction of so-called drone corridors is not an option in the longer term: the interests are too diverse for that. Another option, namely mounting transponders on drones to make them visible to other air carriers and air traffic controllers, is no longer a workable solution as soon as dozens or even hundreds of drones fly around simultaneously above a city.
Hope is based on the commissioning of U-space, a system that in a few years in Europe will ensure automated handling of both manned and unmanned air traffic in designated areas of the airspace. Those who want to fly in U-space must be constantly connected to so-called U-space service providers (USPs), who can thus monitor the location and flight direction of all airspace users to prevent collisions. But that is far from yet: the standards for U-space have yet to be worked out and that also applies to the construction of the necessary infrastructure.
Then there is still the issue of delivery. The winch system such as Manna Aero and Wing use is a great solution to deliver orders to detached houses. But in a densely built-up city like Amsterdam, that is still a different story, especially in the center. Possibly that the first commercial forms of drone delivery in the Netherlands have the highest chance of success in less densely built-up areas.
Other solutions may be in common drop-off points, central pick-up points where delivery drones can deliver their goods, after which the customer has to take care of the collection themselves. Such technology is already under development, but of course it does take some of the convenience and speed out of the delivery chain.
Who knows, in the future, every (new) house will be equipped with its own drop-off location. The idea has also been suggested to place landing pads for delivery drones on top of mailboxes or lampposts. It goes without saying that this is about distant future music: the standardization of such systems alone is a chapter in itself.
Future: passenger transport
Whoever thinks it stays with parcel delivery drones is mistaken. Several parties worldwide are already warming up to transport people with drones washed out of the clods at a good time, also referred to as eVTOLs (short for electrical vertical take-off and landing). The Netherlands will also be tested in 2022 with a double drone taxi, the EH216 from EHang, as part of the European AMU-LED project.
It goes without saying that such forms of urban air mobility (in jargon: Urban Air Mobility, UAM) have a significant impact on the design of the living environment. For example, there must be so-called VertiPorts in strategic places, where eVTOLs can take off and land. That doesn’t necessarily have to be on the ground; roofs of tall buildings may also lend themselves well to this. But just as in the case of drone delivery, there must be sufficient social support for UAM to be able to get off the ground.
case, the pilot flight with the meal-delivery drone in Amsterdam can be seen as a small but important first step towards commercial goods transport by drone in the Netherlands — whether it concerns meal delivery or parcel delivery in general.
The pilot flight over the IJ is actually not yet presentative, as the drone will fly a lot of distance from any spectators ashore and will probably be noticed by few people. Most likely, people on board the ferries on the IJ will get a little more from the drone flight. Partly for this reason, more surveys will be conducted there, according to the initiators.
And Jitse Groen? He emphasizes that for the time being an exploration: “As a leading tech company, we like to join forces with the partners to explore innovative and sustainable solutions together. We hope that this pilot will give us good insights about the business case behind this type of new ways of delivery.”
If requested, Groen stays with his position last year, that drone delivery is not yet suitable for delivering a pizza to someone in the center. “But I can imagine that such a drone can provide a connection over the IJ. Then the people who live across the street will have access to 500 extra restaurants in the city center. But then it must be automated, and not with such an army around it as today.”