The advanced air mobility (AAM) industry, which includes the use of drones to transport shipments, has witnessed heightened interest over the last two years, with US$7 billion pouring into the industry in 2021, more than double the total investment secured by the sector over the last decade. Drone service operator and infrastructure developer Skyports has been testing ship-to-shore drone delivery services in Singapore since early this year to prepare for commercial operations. In this interview, Payload Asia talks to Sanjay Suresh, head of business development and operations APAC at Skyports, to learn more about the company’s ongoing projects as well as the recent developments that are bringing the AAM industry to new heights.
Can you tell us about Skyports’ operations? In which regions do you operate?
Founded in 2018 and headquartered in the UK, Skyports has two key business focuses—drone services and cargo and passenger electric vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) drone infrastructure. As a drone services operator and provider, we are committed to creating positive change by connecting people, businesses and communities to vital supplies and services, such as healthcare, maritime, logistics and e-commerce.
Skyports partners with world-class eVTOL vehicle manufacturers to enable safe, sustainable and efficient flight operations in urban and suburban environments, and is a first mover in the industry in key markets including APAC, EMEA and the Americas.
We also play a key role in the development of regulation and legislation in each of our markets, working alongside the CAA, FAA, CAAS and other regulators to lay the legislative groundwork for the Advanced Air Mobility (AAM) industry.
How has the industry progressed in recent years?
The AAM industry has witnessed heightened interest and accelerated progress across markets, particularly in the last two years. At Skyports, we are proud of our key role in moving the industry beyond proof-of-concept stages towards real-world, commercial deployments.
As the benefits of drone services can only truly be realised with integration across sectors and locations, the last two years have been beneficial for the industry as we saw accelerated interest and progress across markets and industries.
Investor interest has grown exponentially in the last few years, with US$7 billion pouring into the industry in 2021, more than double the total investment secured by the industry in the last decade. In March this year, Skyports closed our Series B funding round, raising a total of US$23 million from investors across four continents. We welcomed investors outside of the European region for the first time, including Japanese conglomerate Kanematsu Corporation, Australia-based Goodman Group and US-based venture capital firm GreenPoint. This capital inflow demonstrates the viability, vast potential and upward trajectory of the AAM industry.
Can you share with us about the projects you’re involved in? What are the different parameters or objectives?
This year alone has seen many exciting new developments for both Skyports and the industry as a whole. Our long-term goal is to bring scalability and commercial viability across markets and sectors, but in the immediate future, we are focusing on designing and testing processes and solutions together with our partners and customers to eventually scale up these offerings globally. In terms of drone services, we have achieved significant milestones in several markets, including the UK and Singapore. A number of projects have graduated past the initial trial phases, towards expanded operations with commercial partners and local regulators to define the necessary frameworks for future operations. With our current crop of projects, we are exploring the extension of flights by distance, duration, payload—all conducted autonomously and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS).
In the UK, we conducted a three-month trial with the National Health Service (NHS) for autonomous drone deliveries and pick-ups of essential medical supplies to rural communities in Scotland in 2020. The trials proved highly impactful in increasing efficiency and saving crucial time for patients and healthcare professionals. During the trial period, more than 12,000 hours in waiting and transport time for Covid-19 test and pathology samples were saved, with distances of more than 14,000 km flown BVLOS. The successful trials were expanded in February 2021 and made fully operational for the delivery and collection of Covid-19 test kits and other medical essentials.
In Singapore, Skyports has actively engaged in conversations with industry partners, regulators and businesses to develop the necessary infrastructure for not only cargo drone services but also passenger air taxi transport. In the maritime sector, Skyports has been conducting drone delivery trials over the past three years to graduate the industry past the proof-of-concept stage towards more concrete applications. Since January 2022, we have commenced a series of trials with major shipping companies Wilhelmsen Ships Agency and Thome Group to prepare for commercial operations. By engaging with end-users like Wilhelmsen and Thome, we are able to incorporate their valuable feedback and collect the necessary data to improve our operations and constantly upgrade our drone delivery services in line with the needs of our customers.
At the same time, constant collaboration within the industry is also a key part of scaling drone services. In March 2022, we announced a partnership with Australia-based vehicle OEM Swoop Aero and German healthcare technology company BD Rowa to transform health supply chains across Europe, Australia and other global markets through the integration of autonomous air logistics in the pharmaceutical industry.
Progress across the industry and markets are at different stages of maturation, and we are actively engaged in a multitude of partnerships worldwide to develop plans for operations, conduct trials, and eventually scale up these operations and establish permanent logistics facilities and infrastructure. Through the experience and expertise gained across Skyports’ global portfolio of projects, we are able to lead and contribute effectively to projects in different regions and sectors.
Which sectors and regions are you looking to tap? Who are your target customers?
We have set up operations across four continents and continue to grow our onground teams and partners as the demand for drone services and infrastructure development increases. We are just at the beginning of educating potential beneficiaries of what drone technology can do for them, and our priority is to match these efforts with the development of industry standards, regulations, vehicle airworthiness, and infrastructure.
The industry is developing quickly in locations across the globe, and now is the time for key players to work collaboratively across borders to develop and define industry standards and regulatory frameworks in tandem. To achieve this, we have established a strong network across Europe, Asia-Pacific and the Americas to play a part in establishing the foundations of the industry.
In the initial phase of operations, Skyports focused our work on lower density areas such as rural communities to carry out deliveries in a more controlled environment. Industries operating in essential services such as healthcare and medical supplies were prioritised to address an immediate and pressing need, before expanding towards other more commercial applications.
Following that, we have been actively involved in drone delivery operations in other sectors in the past two years, such as with maritime ship-to-shore drone delivery services. We are also involved in a host of projects that deal with the development of vertiport infrastructure for passenger air transport, for last-mile services, touristic flights and even cross-border flights. Ultimately, when looking to scale up drone delivery operations, infrastructure in the form of logistics facilities, charging stations, and take-off and landing sites must be developed.
How important is public and private collaboration in realising autonomous air deliveries?
The future is not about the deployment of individual aircraft, but rather drones taking to the skies en masse, carrying out a range of functions. This is a highly complex undertaking that, when successful, will represent a major shift in how businesses operate and individuals live their lives. Thus, public and private sector collaboration is not an option, but an imperative.
Ultimately, scaling drone delivery operations successfully requires close collaboration between key stakeholders such as regulators, vehicle manufacturers, drone delivery service providers and infrastructure developers.
Over the last few years, companies, decision-makers and individuals have reevaluated the role of drone technology and we have seen perceptions towards drone operations change favourably.
Would you say there’s now more emphasis on sustainability?
Yes, sustainable development and climate action have an increasingly profound impact on the collective consciousness of individuals, businesses and governments. Globally, we have experienced hotter weathers, more severe storms, rising sea levels, and increased incidences of drought—just to name a few. Committing to sustainability goals on an individual and organisational level is vital to the future well-being of humanity, and is not an endeavour that can be achieved in isolation.
Drone technology will be a great ally for global sustainability efforts. The excitement generated by the technology comes from its many benefits, but one of the most important benefits is that fully electric drones are 100 percent environmentally friendly, operating with zero carbon emissions. While not all drones in operation today are fully electric, the drones we operate are 100 percent electric, and charged using renewable energy when possible—this means we are able to operate fully green, environmentally friendly flights.