Monday, May 20, 2024
Can drones reshape logistics?

Can drones reshape logistics?

As the airfreight sector embraces innovation, there is one technology that has come into focus given the perceived potential it presents for the industry: Drones.

With a focus on efficiency, sustainability and delivering to remote regions, drones are being looked at as a way to keep cargo flowing without the need for road, rail or other infrastructure. They also present an opportunity to cut delivery times by bypassing traffic congestion, with higher speed than ground-based vehicles, which is ideal for urgent and time-sensitive deliveries. 

Current estimations are that it will take five to ten years before drones are fully integrated in the airfreight industry. Dronamics and Qatar Airways Cargo are working together to deliver at the forefront of this technology.

Despite the development of cargo drone companies, drone deliveries are still considered a novelty. As drone technology continues to improve and regulations become more established, could the adoption of cargo drones be the future, democratising airfreight worldwide and making same day delivery an option for everyone, everywhere?

“We believe it’s where technology like ours can make the biggest difference,” Severina Grozeva, spokesperson for Dronamics, said. “Our solution improves connectivity to remote or hard-to-reach locations.” 

Regulatory resistance

Caution is paramount in the aviation industry and safety is always the number one priority. While this vision is shared by the aviation authorities worldwide, authorities are not ignoring the potential of drone technology. 

The commercial drone regulatory environment is still developing and requires continuous effort from all parties involved to ensure the highest degree of safety while supporting innovation. Operations-wise, the regulatory environment is becoming more receptive to innovation, with the UK having recently approved a ‘drone flight corridor’ and Project Caelus aiming to revolutionise the way healthcare is delivered to remote communities. 

For instance, the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) has published guidelines to help aviation operators and national authorities manage drone incidents near airports. Similarly, the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has announced final rules for Unmanned Aircraft (UA), commonly known as drones. These rules require Remote Identification (Remote ID) of drones and allow operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions.

The regulatory frames for commercial drones didn’t exist when Dronamics started the company nine years ago. The EU regulation for drone operators has developed along with the company’s own research and development process, leading to them becoming the first cargo drone airline to get licensed under the beyond visual line of sight (BVLoS) framework. 

“The typical regulatory position places complex limits on the beyond visual line of sight (BVLoS) operation of drones. Currently, no regulations in place would allow for the widespread use of drones for shipping purposes,” Liesbeth Oudkerk, Qatar Airways Cargo’s Senior Vice President for Cargo Sales and Network Planning, explained.

“While the technology and regulations for cargo drones have advanced significantly in recent years, it may still take some time for drones to become a widespread part of the cargo ecosystem. This year 2023 marks exactly ten years since Jeff Bezos’ announcement of Amazon drones inspired us to do something quite different, focusing on the middle-mile instead” Grozeva accepted.

READ: Dronamics makes history with world’s first cargo drone airline

A new model

Traditionally in aviation, new aircraft are based on previous aircraft, to simplify certification as it is one of the most regulated industries, restricting innovation. Similarly, when small drones came on the market, a lot of next iterations were advancements of the previous versions. It’s a safer and quicker go-to-market for manufacturers. 

Since the start, Dronamics has believed in its thesis that middle-mile logistics are where drones can make a real difference, and therefore, they built a remotely piloted aircraft solely for that purpose. 

“We need to strike a perfect balance between innovation and safety concerns,” Oudkerk said.

“Drones represent a huge opportunity for more efficient and cost-effective delivery, especially in the middle-mile and particularly in remote or hard-to-reach areas,” Grozeva added. “However, a drone airline such as Dronamics, faces regulatory frameworks, just like a traditional one. Traditional carriers can leverage cargo drone technology by partnering with companies that are developing it, like ours.”

Remote delivery

Drones are being used to quickly reach remote locations and locations without proper infrastructure to support conventional aircraft. Additionally, regions that are hard to reach due to difficult terrain can be reached by drones. 

“The airfreight industry is very susceptible to market challenges – innovation is key. Cargo is also very price sensitive, so innovation also needs to be practical and have the potential for wide adoption,” Grozeva explained.

“Our operating model is based around serving regional and extra-urban areas – there are several reasons for that. We believe the middle-mile in logistics is the one most ripe for change so we are fully focused on offering a solution for that. It’s where most bottlenecks and inefficiencies occur and where our solution can make a meaningful difference,” Grozeva continued. 

READ: Drones: The end of Britain’s silent killer

Sustainable solution

Decarbonisation is a challenge not only across cargo and air cargo, but the entire global supply chain. It’s not only shipping goods that are the issue, it’s their entire lifecycle, starting with manufacturing. One of the answers could be to focus on driving efficiencies. Doing more with less. This is one of the value propositions of the Dronamics cargo drone solution, which can offer up to 80% less time, 50% less cost, 60% less c02 emissions compared to traditional freight. 

It’s also about re-thinking some of the traditional lanes. For example, many of the areas that are going to be serviced can take days to reach nowadays, because they are outside the main hubs and might not get a daily airfreight service at all. 

“The solution not only offers 80% time savings and 50% cost savings, it can also provide up to 60% co2 savings – and is on the path to net-zero. Our drones are extremely fuel efficient, resulting in a lower carbon footprint compared to traditional delivery methods, plus further lowering emissions by shortening the distance travelled by cargo and reducing the number of stops on its way to the final destination,” Grozeva said.

“Drones, especially electrically powered ones, emit less carbon dioxide compared to conventional delivery vehicles. Drones also have the potential to be designed to run on sustainable aviation fuel (SAF), further reducing their carbon footprint. Though access to SAF is always the critical issue for the aviation industry,” Oudkerk continued.

Picture of James Graham

James Graham

James Graham is an award-winning transport media journalist with a long background in the commercial freight sector, including commercial aviation and the aviation supply chain. He was the initial Air Cargo Week journalist and retuned later for a stint as editor. He continues his association as editor of the monthly supplements. He has reported for the newspaper from global locations as well as the UK.

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