Drone Delivery for Amazon and Google Slowed by Headwinds

An unmanned aircraft system. US NAVY

Drones have become synonymous with modern life—they've distanced troops from the battlefield and are even expected to bring the Internet to remote and underserved areas. But as their use in delivery services verges on becoming a reality, drones are running into a big problem: wind.

Though Google and Amazon have already begun testing, German company Deutsche Post DHL is ahead of the pack. Since December 2013, DHL has been carrying out delivery drone missions to collect data about how unmanned aerial vehicles behave in special weather conditions. Its project represents the first and only time to date that drones are carrying out automated real-life missions in Europe.

In the first round of flights in December, "the parcelcopter" flew from one end of the Rhine River to the other (two kilometers) approximately 50 times. Once satisfied with the information gathered from the first round of flights, the company wanted the drone to endure a longer mission and heavier weather conditions. After a few adjustments to optimize the drone for longer flight duration and range, as well as faster speed, the parcelcopter was ready for round two.

This time DHL had the drone deliver medical supplies from the city of Norden to Juist, a remote island off the country's coast. Not only is this a 12-kilometer trip, but the area around the island has harsher weather conditions. In fact, the first flight scheduled for September 25 was postponed due to wind, and another mission was canceled today for the same reason.

Of the 10 missions to Juist so far, two were postponed. What can this 20 percent cancellation rate due to wind mean for widespread use of delivery drones?

"The weather conditions always play an important role," DHL spokeswoman Duja Kuhlmann said in an interview with Newsweek. "And the technology has to be adapted and somehow developed so that the drones can fly longer, especially in heavy winds."

While Google and Amazon have been testing delivery drones in a limited capacity for a few years, strict U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) guidelines has forced them to do their testing abroad. This means the companies are unable to properly learn about the environment they wish to deliver in and adapt their technology accordingly. This has important implications since the United States is home to some of the world's windiest cities; Dodge City, Kansas, and Port Orford, Oregon, among them.

And DHL doesn't plan on helping the tech giants. "We kept the information [of their mission's findings] to ourselves because we don't want to share with Amazon and Google," Kuhlmann said.

Amazon recently asked the FAA to give it permission to test-fly drones on private property it owns outside of Seattle. But even if the request is granted, Amazon would be flying small, battery-powered drones at an altitude no higher than 400 feet. The drone would also have to remain in sight of the operator and have a kill switch in the event something goes awry. Amazon and Google have a long road of testing and tweaking ahead of them before wind is no longer a problem.

Despite the testing-location setbacks and demonstrated wind barriers, Google and Amazon have outlined plans to roll out commercial delivery in the coming years. DHL, on the other hand, has limited its ambitions to special situations, like the remote island where it is more cost-effective to use a drone.