ZF flies drones over plant premises in Germany
ZF says it is the first company in Germany to receive official approval for automated drone flights over factory premises. A drone prototype has recently started flying spare parts, such as sensors or control cards, from the central warehouse to workshops at ZF’s Plant 2 in Friedrichshafen. As soon as the test flights are complete and drones properly deployed, such flights will relieve vehicle traffic at the plant and save time on the up to 1-km-long (0.6 mi) delivery routes that are often on the upper floors of buildings, the company says. ZF believes that in the long term, packages could even be delivered outside of factory premises, for example to facilitate package delivery in residential areas that are difficult to access.
The six-motor drone can transport up to 5 kg (11 lb) in weight by air—or 3 kg (6.6 lb) of goods after taking into account the grippers and transport box. This is sufficient for the vast majority of spare parts and tools that need to be transported on company premises. Safety is also a top priority when transporting goods by drone. The 30 km/h (18.6 mph) hexacopter mainly flies over the roofs of plant buildings and only crosses driveways and sidewalks where there is no alternative. The rechargeable battery, which provides around 30 to 40 minutes of electrical flight operation, is also redundant, as are the propellers and motors. The drone is therefore still maneuverable even if one motor fails.
“At the IAA Commercial Vehicles show in Hanover this year, we showed the technologies which we are developing to enable the autonomous depot. With the drone, we are taking the transport chain to the next level,” said Fredrik Staedtler, head of ZF’s Commercial Vehicle Technology division.
“With approvals for automated drone flights from the Stuttgart Regional Administrative Authority and the German Air Traffic Control DFS, we can accelerate logistics processes in the plant and at the same time strengthen our technological leadership position.
“Chief Maintenance Technician Michael Wiest took advantage of ‘agile working’ at ZF and very quickly and creatively implemented logistics-by-drone from an initial idea—one which was belittled by some in the beginning. He pushed the project forward when policymakers were only considering allowing fully automated drone flights but had not yet drafted legal provisions,” continued Staedtler.
Drones, mostly equipped with cameras, could until now only be used privately or commercially for mapping, monitoring factory fences, or surveying, for example. ZF says it is now the first company in Germany to use automated drones to transport goods on its plant premises.
“We still need to make some adjustments to achieve a completely smooth flight before our delivery drone can be permanently integrated into the logistics process chain,” said Matthias Haberstroh, head of Supply Chain Management at ZF’s Commercial Vehicle Technology division. “The transport system was extensively tested by our supplier, but we still had to further test a number of different navigation sensors on site in Friedrichshafen which also ensure precise positioning between the plant halls.”