A serious accident by a delivery drone in Switzerland has punished the fleet and frozen a company. A stone’s throw from a school, the incident raised grim possibilities for the possibilities of catastrophic payload autonomous aerial vehicle failures.
The drones were operated by Matternet as part of a partnership with Swiss Post (i.e., the postal service), which was using the ship to send laboratory samples from a medical center for priority cases. As for the possible applications of drone delivery, it is a home run, but twice the ship has crashed, first with a soft landing and the second very difficult.
The first incident, in January, was the result of a GPS hardware failure; the drone entered a planned recovery state and deployed its emergency parachute, slowly dropping to the ground. Steps were taken to improve GPS systems.
However, the second failure in May led to the drone attempting to deploy its parachute again, only to cut the line somehow and plummet to the ground, crashing into the ground about 150 feet from a group of kindergarteners. No one was hit, but this narrowly avoided being a worst-case scenario for service: not just the failure of one ship, but also the failure of emergency systems, and not just in a populated area but immediately over a group of children. The incident was documented last month but not widely reported.
Falling from a few hundred feet, the drone and 12-kilogram (roughly 26-pound) payload could easily have seriously injured or even killed someone; that is why there are very strict regulations on flying over populated areas and crowds.
Obviously they punished the fleet after this incident and will not turn again until Matternet addresses the various issues involved. How was it possible, for example, that the parachute line could be cut by something on the drone?
IEEE Spectrum first noticed the news in America. The company the following statement in this regard:
This is the first time that our vehicle parachute system has failed. As stated in the report, the flight termination system was nominally activated to the drone’s specifications, but the parachute cable was severed during the parachute deployment.
At Matternet, we take the security of our technology and operations extremely seriously. A failure of the parachute safety mechanism system is unacceptable and we are taking all appropriate measures to remedy it.
Swiss Post and Matternet reacted to the incident immediately by grounding all operations related to this type of vehicle. Our experts analyzed the incident and proposed appropriate mitigations that are being evaluated by FOCA. We will restart operations once Matternet and Swiss Post, FOCA and our Swiss hospital customers are satisfied that the appropriate mitigations have been applied.
Drone delivery is a promising field, but situations like this don’t do you any favors when regulators take a look. Despite encouraging industry predictions, there is still a lot of work to be done in terms of flight to test the technology, and while 2 out of 3,000 failures may not seem like much, if one of those failures is an uncontrolled drop that almost eliminates Some kids, that could set the whole industry back.
(This story has been slightly updated to accommodate a new Matternet statement.)