Logistic Robots in the Sky

Autonomous Drones Go Live in Germany

There’s something particularly futuristic about the thought of drones flying around factory premises, becoming part of the logistics chain, picking up and delivering parts, and taking efficiency to a new level.

Drones, more formally called unmanned aerial vehicles, are proving to be crucial to industries and government agencies around the globe. During the past two decades, they’ve evolved to take on an increasing number of specialized tasks (see, for example, The Farmhand Drone).

In an interesting development for the drone industry, German supplier of car components ZF Friedrichshafen has started testing these flying vehicles to distribute parts at its main plant in Germany.

The company claims to be the first in the country to receive official approval for automated drone flights over factory premises from the Stuttgart regional government and the German air traffic control. Until now, drones, mostly equipped with cameras, could only be used privately or commercially for mapping, monitoring or surveying purposes.

The test unit that has been deployed can travel at 30 kph and flies mainly over the roofs of plant buildings, only crossing driveways and pavements when there’s no alternative. The six-motor drone can handle a payload of 3kg, which the company said was sufficient for the vast majority of components and tools it needed to move around the site.

The prototype is being used to transport spare parts such as sensors and control cards from the plant’s central warehouse to various workshops, with the aim of proving that such flights are both possible and safe. Its use is expected to reduce ground traffic at the plant, save time on delivery routes of up to 1 km and serve destinations on the upper floors of some buildings.

This development is a reminder of the potential role that next-generation 5G networks could play in such deployments. As fleets of autonomous drones expand, this could become a great enterprise use for 5G, which promises low latency, increased capacity and improved battery efficiency. That said, it also underlines the importance of robust connectivity, and that could be many years away.

Armies of drones certainly have the potential to become another type of autonomous fleet management. Opportunities like this represent one, albeit small, element of the business case for fifth-generation networks. Flying robots could certainly become a part of the 5G economy.