Open Innovation Drone Project Reaches for the Skies

Published Aug-07-17

The co-development with customers of a parcel delivery drone.

DHL, Germany

The Story:

Open Innovation Drone Project Reaches for the Skies There are lots of ways companies can engage external smarts through open innovation, such as open innovation challenges, hackathons, innovation contests and technology scouting. An approach that is proving popular with some consumer-facing organizations is co-creating with their customers.

In many areas, customers no longer want to be passive recipients of products and services, they want to contribute ideas and suggest ways products can be improved. And as they regularly use them they possesses a deep well of knowledge about their strengths, weaknesses and possible quirks. Companies that draw on their input can do so without a lot of investment, reaping the benefits as long as they provide a good mechanism for collating and curating ideas.

Meet Parcelcopter

Co-creation can be so much more than just a marketing gimmick that asks customers to tick a few boxes. It can a strong relationship that brings to life to novel concepts, products and services. One company that gets this is DHL, a global leader in logistics. Its co-creation initiatives have resulted in several innovations, including Parcelcopter, a drone delivery research project.

This small, unmanned robotic helicopter has been designed to deliver packages to customers, who have played a big part in its creation.

To leverage consumer insights, DHL invited customers and DHL service partners to their innovation centers, where they engaged in hands-on workshops. This involved scenario planning (such as "what could the world look like in 2050?") and sessions to understand the effects of technology, economics, culture and the socio-political sphere to help develop new ways to manage supply chains and logistics.

Participants were presented with four different views of what 2050 would look like, including a doomsday scenario, and in stark contrast a perfect world. They then tracked back to 2020, coming across various problems that had to be solved. The drone was one of the ideas to come out of these big brainstorming and role-playing sessions.


Parcelcopter has been built and trialed successfully. The third generation of the copter undertook a three-month trial period in 2016 involving private customers in the Bavarian community of Reit im Winkl. The idea was to have the drone make deliveries to people living in remote areas.

Customers left packages to be delivered in a specially developed pack station, dubbed the Parcelcopter Skyport. These were automatically loaded onto the drone, which then took off and flew to another Skyport.

Each round trip was approximately eight kilometers and took the drone eight minutes. During the winter, this journey would take about 30 minutes by car. A total of 130 autonomous loading and offloading cycles were performed during the trial with the copter carrying either sporting goods or medicines.

“We’re the first worldwide who are able to offer a transport drone – Parcelcopter at DHL – for end-customer delivery,” said Jürgen Gerdes, Management Board Member for Post - eCommerce - Parcel at Deutsche Post DHL Group, in a press release accompanying the trial.

“With this combination of fully automated loading and unloading as well as an increased transport load and range of our Parcelcopter we have achieved a level of technical and procedural maturity to eventually allow for field trials in urban areas as well.”

The performance data and other insights from the trial were analyzed by DHL and are being used to determine potential areas for future trials.

Co-Creation Success

DHL's co-creation endeavors were initially viewed with skepticism internally and among customers who thought it was a marketing wheeze. So the company identified DHL leaders who saw this as a good innovation opportunity and brought in what it says were "the right kind of customers". The net result of all of this could be an innovation that saves DHL a lot of money and boost its profits too.

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