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.

As soon as test flights are complete and drones properly deployed, such flights will relieve vehicle traffic at the plant and save time on the up to 1km delivery routes which are often on the upper floors of buildings. In the long term, packages could be delivered outside factory premises, for example to facilitate delivery in residential areas which are difficult to access.

 The six-motor drone can transport up to 5kg in weight by air – or 3kg of goods after taking into account the grippers and transport box. This is sufficient for the vast majority of spare parts and tools which need to be transported on company premises.

The 30 km/h hexacopter mainly flies over the roofs of plant buildings and only crosses driveways and pavements where there is no alternative.

 “At the IAA Commercial Vehicles show in Hanover this year, we showed the technologies which we are developing to enable the autonomous depot,” said ZF Commercial Vehicle Technology Division head, Fredrik Staedtler.

“With the drone, we are taking the transport chain to the next level.

 “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 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.”

Drones, mostly equipped with cameras, could until now only be used privately or commercially for mapping, monitoring factory fences or surveying, for example.

“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 ZF Commercial Vehicle Technology division head of Supply Chain Management, Matthias Haberstroh.

“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.”

 Using drones on factory premises is an addition to ZF’s activities using Industry 4.0. In the mid-term, other companies could also use the delivery drones industrialised by ZF on their premises.

In the long-term, delivery drones could also be used outside protected factory premises to support couriers, express and parcel services where their delivery vehicles cannot enter narrow cul-de-sacs or other delivery areas which are difficult to access.