Matternet drone in use by Swiss Post. (Swiss Post)
Swiss Post’s drone delivery service has been indefinitely suspended after a drone crashed not far from a group of kindergarten children.
The program, which ferries healthcare items like lab samples between hospitals and uses large quadrotor drones made by U.S.-based Matternet, launched in 2017 and has made more than 3,000 successful deliveries to date.
A January emergency landing onto Lake Zurich put the delivery service on hold until April; this was found by the Swiss Transportation Safety Investigation Board (STSB) to likely be the result of a short circuit interrupting the power supply to the GPS, for which Matternet made modifications to increase redundancy, and service was restored in April.
After this first incident, the STSB noted that the “drone’s safety mechanisms worked flawlessly: as intended in such cases, the drone initiated the emergency landing itself. To do so, the drone stops its rotors and opens its parachute. The drone glides downwards, emitting a high- pitched [sic] whistling sound and using bright blinking lights to attract attention.”
But in the case of the latest crash, which happened in May — just a month after the drone delivery service started back up — Matternet’s safety systems did not function as intended. A yet-to-be-identified flight issue caused the drone to deploy its emergency parachute two minutes after launch, but the single tether connecting the parachute to the drone got caught on a sharp part of the drone and broke, causing the 22-pound quadrotor to crash uncontrolled into a wooded area near Zurich University.
Swiss Post has asked Matternet to urgently implement a number of safety mechanisms to reinforce its drones’ parachute system, which the company is working on. Its full statement, given to Spectrum IEEE, can be found here.
Impact Outside the Neutral Zone
Matternet’s drones are also being used by UPS in partnership with WakeMed hospitals in Raleigh, North Carolina. The air cargo carrier recently announced the formation of a subsidiary company to focus on medical drone delivery, named UPS Flight Forward, and applied for FAA Part 135 approval to operate commercial drone delivery flights.
If approved, UPS will be able to conduct revenue-generating drone delivery flights beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) during day or night, which it plans to do in hospital and campus settings. UPS does not plan to offer drone delivery services to regular customers in the near future.
Meanwhile, the FAA is considering making it easier for operators to fly small drones — which would include delivery service drones — at night and over people, which currently requires a waiver that is difficult to procure.
As Wing, UPS, Amazon and others continue to pursue drone delivery services with the goal of achieving scalable, autonomous, BVLOS service, preventing crashes such as the one that currently has Swiss Post's operations grounded will be crucial.
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