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Crash Near Children Leads Swiss Post and Matternet to Suspend Drone Delivery Program

BY Zacc Dukowitz
7 August 2019

After a recent crash of one of its delivery drones near children, the Swiss Post has suspended its drone delivery program indefinitely.

Photo credit: Swiss Post

The drones used in the delivery program were created and operated by Matternet. Since 2017 the Swiss Post and Matternet have been working in partnership in three different Swiss cities to test drone deliveries of lab samples such as blood tests between hospitals, and have made over 3,000 successful deliveries to date.

But two crashes this year—the most recent only fifty yards from a group of children—have led to the program being shuttered until safety concerns can be fully addressed.

About the Two Crashes

The first crash took place on January 25th, when a Matternet drone failed and fell into Lake Zurich.

The crash was the result of a GPS hardware error, which caused a loss of power to the drone’s GPS. After the loss of power to the GPS, the drone entered a planned failback state, causing it to deploy its emergency parachute so that it was brought slowly down to the water.

Following the crash, the Swiss Post halted drone deliveries until April. The delivery program resumed after Matternet updated its drones with a fully redundant GPS, compass, and power system.

Photo credit: Swiss Post

The second crash took place in Zurich in the month of May, not long after the Swiss Post had restarted drone deliveries.

The exact cause of the second crash is still unknown, but the Swiss Post’s initial investigation indicates that wind may have been a contributing factor.

In the second crash, the drone again deployed its parachute after something caused it to fail mid-flight. However, the tether that connected the drone to the parachute was cut somehow (most likely by a sharp part of the drone) causing it to fall out of the sky and crash “in a wooded area of Zurich’s university quarter only 50 yards away from a group of playing kindergarten children,” according to the German newspaper Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung.

In a statement Matternet took responsibility for the failure, saying that they had never seen one of their drones fail in the way that the drone had failed in May, and that they had never seen one of their drone’s parachute systems fail before.

A failure of the parachute system is a clear failure of our safety mechanisms and we are taking all the appropriate measures to address it.

– Matternet Statement

Although no one was hit, the drone that crashed weighed about 26 pounds (if you add its payload to the weight), and could have seriously injured or killed someone. That being said, Matternet did note that the area where the drone crashed was not populated, and was a forested part of Zurich.

Transportation of laboratory samples by drone

Watch this video to learn more about the Swiss Post and Matternet partnership.

Swiss Post Response—Plans to Establish Board of Safety Experts and More

Responding to the May crash, the Swiss Post issued a public statement in which they asked Matternet to make several changes to safety features on its drones.

The changes requested include:

  • The drone’s parachute ropes be reinforced with metal braiding
  • The drone’s parachute be attached to the drone with two ropes rather than one.
  • The shrill whistle, which alerts people near the drone when it is making an emergency landing, be made louder

The Swiss Post also said that they are establishing a board of safety experts to provide guidance on safety for drone delivery services.

This board will advise and guide Swiss Post regarding risk and safety management for all aspects of the drone flight operations in the future. Swiss Post’s aim is to align its risk and safety management with normal aviation standards.

Swiss Post

Matternet responded immediately, announcing that they had taken the following steps:

  • The drone’s parachute rope is now reinforced with a metal mesh
  • The drone’s parachute is now attached to the drone with two ropes instead of one
  • If the drone should fail and begin falling, a loud alarm will now sound to warn people of an impending crash
  • The drone’s maximum speed is reduced to 38 miles per hour (or 17 meters per second, as declared in the original statement)

In addition to its partnership with the Swiss Post, Matternet is a UAS IPP partner in the North Carolina medical drone delivery program, along with UPS and the state of North Carolina.

As a result of their involvement in the UAS IPP, Matternet is currently conducting regular drone deliveries of blood samples on the WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, North Carolina.

What do you think—do these crashes mean that drone deliveries just aren’t ready for prime time? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.

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