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French Post Uses Drones to Deliver Mail to Hard-to-Access Alpine Village

BY Zacc Dukowitz
5 December 2019

The French postal service, La Poste, has started using drones to make deliveries to Mont-Saint-Martin, a remote Alpine village that sits almost half a mile above sea level in the Chartreuse mountains.

dpd-la-poste-drone-delivery
Photo credit: DPD

This is the second delivery route that DPD, a subsidiary of La Poste, has been given permission to fly.

According to DPD, using a drone to make deliveries to this village instead of a van cuts the delivery time down from 30 minutes round trip to just 8 minutes.

It’s also safer. The village can only be reached by driving a delivery van up a steep, winding road through the mountains, which in winter can be covered in ice and snow, making it hazardous for drivers.

There are many benefits to drone delivery in the mountains as compared to delivery by van. For the driver, in addition to the time saved, there is reduced risk on roads that are dangerous and sometimes blocked especially in winter.

DPD

[Related: FAA Approves UPS Subsidiary Flight Forward to Be First Ever “Drone Airline”]

About La Poste and DPD’s New Drone Delivery Route

The drone deliveries are taking place in the Isère region of south-east France, going between Fontanil-Cornillon and the small mountain town of Mont-Saint-Martin.

The trip takes a total of about eight minutes round trip with the drone flying an average of 18 mph (30 km/h). Given that roads to the village can be shut down in the winter due to excessive snow and ice, using a drone to make deliveries there means a safer, more reliable means for transporting goods to the people of the town.

DPD’s delivery drones are hexacopters with a range of about 9 miles, with batteries that can be charged by solar energy. They are fairly limited in what they can carry—the maximum payload they can support is 4.5 pounds (2kg) or less with dimensions that measure, at the most, 12” x 6” x 4” (31cm x 15cm x 10cm).

The drones have several safety features, including an anti-collision system, an autonomous parachute system designed to deploy if the drone suddenly starts falling from the sky, and a camera set to automatically record each flight in order to serve as a black box in case of an accident.

Driver’s Assistant

One of the more interesting features of DPD’s new drone delivery program is the technology being used to deploy the drone.

Deliveries take off from a special mobile terminal, called a “Driver’s Assistant” by DPD, which comes out of the side of the delivery vehicle.

dpd-drone-delivery
Photo credit: DPD

During the entire delivery mission, the drone is on fully automatic flight mode, under the remote supervision of an operator certified by the Aviation Safety Agency (DSAC).

Here are the steps the delivery person takes to execute a delivery using Driver’s Assistant:

  • Parks delivery vehicle in a dedicated parking space in Fontanil-Cornillon
  • Activates the terminal’s deployment
  • Scans the parcel
  • Clips the parcel under the drone
  • Checks to make sure the area around the delivery van is clear
  • Requests take-off authorization from the Atechsys operator (the certified drone operator)
  • Waits for the drone to take off
  • Drone flies automatically to Mont-Saint-Martin under the supervision of the certified drone operator

drone-delivery-dpd-la-poste
Photo credit: DPD

Once the drone arrives in the village it’s guided to a secure receiving terminal, similar to a mailbox, where its package is released (see picture above). A delivery receipt is sent via SMS/email to a town hall employee, who can collect the parcel later and hand-deliver it to the final recipient.

History Behind La Poste’s Drone Delivery Program

DPD first began doing R & D for drone delivery in 2014. Working in partnership with the French company Atechsys, DPD helped design a drone that could be used to reliably conduct parcel deliveries.

In December of 2016, the Directorate General for Civil Aviation (DGAC) in France authorized DPD to offer its first drone delivery line in the Var, which is located in the south of France. This delivery route went from Saint-Maximin-la-Sainte Baume to the remote community of Pourrières, and is still active today.

After successfully flying that route for almost three years, DPD has now been given permission to open this second route between Fontanil-Cornillon and Mont-Saint-Martin.

This new route is the first time DPD will be using the Driver’s Assistant mobile terminal. It’s also the first time a drone will be used in France to make deliveries in the mountains, which pose unique challenges due to inclement weather and visibility limitations.

Excited to hear about La Poste’s new drone delivery route? Share your thoughts in this thread on the UAV Coach community forum.

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