Drones for Search-And-Rescue, Delivery Services Take-off

From last mile logistics to search-and-rescue, drones are changing the skies.
Susan Fourtané

Drones. A controversial topic for some. A futuristic scenery for others. The fact is, that the history of drones -- or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) -- goes back to 1839 when unsuccessful balloons filled with explosives sent by Austrian soldiers were supposed to explode and bomb the city of Venice.

However, some of them flew back and bombed the Austrians' own lines, instead, discouraging their future use. 

Since then, drones have evolved to become a technology that can be used for the benefit and betterment of humanity. According to a Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) aerospace forecast report for the fiscal years 2016 to 2036, 7 million drones will fly the skies by 2020.

From forest search-and-rescue to delivery of medicine in remote areas to delivery your next online order drones are set to fly the skies on a regular basis. 

Fleet of drones for forest search-and-rescue  

Researchers from the Massachusets Institute of Technology (MIT) in collaboration with the NASA Langley Research Center have developed an autonomous fleet of quadrotor drones. 

The drones can collaboratively search for lost hikers without the need to use GPS. They can explore the terrain using on-board computation and wireless communication even under dense forest canopies where GPS signals are unreliable. 

"Essentially, we're replacing humans with a fleet of drones to make the search part of the search-and-rescue process more efficient," says lead researcher Yulun Tian from MIT's Department of Aeronautics and Astronautics (AeroAstro). 

Each drone has a mounted a LIDAR system, which creates a 2D scan of the surrounding obstacles by shooting laser beams and measuring the reflected pulses. According to the researchers, when the LIDAR signal returns a cluster of trees, an algorithm calculates the angles and distances between trees to identify that cluster.

“Drones can use that as a unique signature to tell if they’ve visited this area before or if it’s a new area,” Yulun Tian says.

One limitation the drones still have is that they must communicate with an off-board ground station for map merging. In their outdoor experiment, the researchers set up a wireless router that connected each drone and the ground station.

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In the future, the researchers expect to improve the design of the drones so they could communicate wirelessly when approaching one another, fuse their maps, and then cut communication when they separate.

It would be a drone-to-drone communication (D2D) similar to the existing vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) in autonomous cars. The ground station would then only be used to monitor the updated global map.

Delivery by drone: The future of logistics 

Cities in Europe are being taken over already by robots that deliver parcels and letters. They are part of several automated postal delivery services. But what about drone parcel delivery?

Amazon's Prime Air's first drone delivery service to a customer took place in December 2016. Amazon's automated drone delivered a package to a customer in Cambridge, England in 13 minutes after receiving the order. The automated drone travels under 400 feet and carries packages up to five pounds. 

The evolution of the DHL Parcelcopter

The DHL Parcelcopter has come a long way since the first Parcelcopter operated manually in 2013 which took off with a mission of delivering medicines 1.2 Km away to the Parcelcopter 4.1 delivering medicines in 2018 in Tanzania. 

In 2014, for the first time an unmanned aerial vehicle took off: the Parcelcopter 2.0. Since then, the scientific team has refined the capabilities of the Parcelcopter. It's made evident that drone technology offers value in the delivery of emergency parcels, especially in difficult to reach areas. 

The Parcelcopter 3.0 celebrates its world premier in 2016. The drone was then able to stand and fly vertically, fully autonomously, achieving a distance of 8 Km and 480 meters in altitude. The UAV is tested for express and emergency delivery. 

Since 2016, DHL, one of the pioneers in drone delivery services, has been using its parcelcopter autonomous technology to make parcel deliveries, adding to the autonomous future of logistics. It offers customers to send and receive parcel around the clock. 

The Parcelcopter 4.0 is currently being tested in urban areas in Tanzania for medical deliveries. 

Drones for medical deliveries in Tanzania, East Africa

The DHL Parcelcopter was primarily developed with the intention of being used in situations where the infrastructure is poor or where standard delivery methods are overly lengthy or difficult. The DHL Parcelcopter is particularly useful in areas where natural barriers such water and mountains can be a problem for traditional delivery, but are not an issue for a drone.

Remote areas greatly benefit from deliveries by drones since otherwise, the many inhabitants in those regions could not get medical supplies or other necessary goods. 

In Tanzania, the Ukerewe Island on the east side of Lake Victoria is an area with geographical challenges. There are over 400,000 people living in the Ukerewe District, many suffering from malaria, typhoid, and schistosomiasis.  

Due to the geographical situation of the island, sometimes they don't get any medicines because they can't get regular daily deliveries. The last mile logistics is particularly difficult due to the bad infrastructure, poor roads in rural areas, and unreliable vessels. In an emergency, a delivery can take up to 6 hours by road or 4 hours by crossing the lake. This represents a threat of death if the medicines are not on time. 

Parcelcopter to the rescue 

The pilot project Deliver Future 2018 is changing the lives of people in Tanzania. The autonomous DHL Parcelcopter 4.1 can travel at 130Km/h carrying 4 Kg, and reaching the island in 40 minutes. The tilt rotor technology lets the drone take off, travel vertically, and change to transition mode. The drone can land in a small area where there are no runways.

The drone technology addresses all the challenges that people in Tanzania have. 

Health Wagon uses drones to help the medically underserved

In 2015, one of the first U.S. federally approved health care-related delivery by drone took place, bringing multiple prescription drugs for dozens of patients in Virginia. Since then, drone technology has evolved  and people are more used to seeing unmanned flying objects, especially when their destination is some remote area where thousands of people can benefit from drone delivery. 


Guided by GPS and using drone drop technology, drones can now deliver medicines, medical supplies, and medical equipment to remote medical areas around the world. 

Health Wagon, a non-profit organization providing mobile health services to the medically underserved in Southwest Virginia in the United States, organized a remote clinic and received medical supplies and medicines delivered by drones. 

Besides drones, Health Wagon uses state-of-the-art technology such as an advanced computer systems and broadband telecommunications linkage that are used to provide clinical, educational, and a series of other specialty services to patients via telemedicine technologies.

Health Wagon relies on donations. It has partnered with the University of Virginia Health System which network is capable of rapidly transferring health patient records (HPR) and medical images such as X-Rays, CT, and MRI scans as well as ultrasound recordings. 

Drones can prove to be invaluable not only in remote areas but also after catastrophic events such as earthquakes helping save countless of lives. The use of drones can have also a great positive impact in the future of healthcare. 




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