The use of drones or unmanned aerial vehicles has certainly come a long way. From hot air balloons for reconnaissance in the late 1800s to remote-controlled planes for military purposes, the technology has greatly evolved and its usage has become widespread across different sectors, most notably logistics.
Across the globe, leading engineers and companies are developing all sorts of drones for air cargo operations, whether for inspection, sorting in fulfilment centres, wildlife management or cargo transport and delivery. Meanwhile, the aviation industry and logistics players are keeping close watch on the benefits of the unmanned aerial technology when it comes to cost and sustainability.
Some of the use cases that have taken off include the use of drones for medical missions to remote places but it doesn’t stop there. Drone service operator and infrastructure developer Skyports has been testing ship-to-shore drone delivery services in Singapore since early January together with major shipping companies to prepare for commercial operations.
Strong investor interest
Sanjay Suresh, head of business development and operations APAC at Skyports, said 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, the UK-based startup raised US$23 million from investors across four continents, including Japan, Australia and the US. Whilst Skyports is mainly an operator and infrastructure developer, one of the company’s previous project partners, Wingcopter, is moving strides with its newest drone technology.
The German drone developer on 12 May announced that the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has issued the Special Class Airworthiness Criteria for the company’s unmanned aircraft, as part of its certification process in the US. Its Wingcopter 198 is a fixed-wing and vertical take-off and landing (eVTOL) drone, meaning it has both the advantages of landing without the need for major infrastructure and flying forward like an airplane. The drone can carry 6 kilos and is the first of its kind to offer a triple-drop mechanism, meaning it can deliver up to three parcels to three different locations on the same flight.
Weighing the options
Whilst Wingcopter’s payload would limit its use to delivering packages, spare parts, food, or groceries, other drone operators and developers are working on expanding their capabilities. In Malaysia, Pen Aviation is working in partnership with the French company Cavok-UAS to develop drones that can transport shipments weighing 3 kilos to a tonne.
In October last year, the company signed an MoU with DHL Express to demonstrate the commercial viability of its drone product Pen55V for first-mile to last-mile port logistics to serve the maritime industry. The companies, working alongside Raya Airways, will aim to certify and utilise the medium-sized cargo drone, which resembles a remote control helicopter and can carry up to 12 kilos, to move shipments from the cargo ship deck to the port and vice versa round the clock.
Serving the middle mile, drone developer Dronamics, with main hubs at Sofia airport in Bulgaria, is moving forward with the commercial deployment of its Black Swan product with plans to start commercial flights in Europe this year. Amongst the new technologies, Black Swan, which took 7 years to develop, offers payload up to 350 kilos and flight distance of 2,500 kilometres. Dronamics said it chose to start with a certified ROTAX, a widely used aviation engine and known to regulators, that will allow the company to enter the market now instead of waiting for electric or hydrogen engines to catch up.
According to Svilen Rangelov, company CEO, obtaining authorization for operations is now the main hurdle for any drone logistics operator. The company plans to operate ‘low-risk routes’, flying primarily over sea, and the ambition is to get more flight hours and connect regional centers across countries.
“Since 2021 EASA has pioneered the unified drone regulations across the EU that is a cornerstone framework that sets out a clear path to authorization for us and other drone delivery platforms. We hope that once more and more operators start flying in Europe, civil aviation authorities across the world like the FAA in the US and CASA in Australia will take note and adopt a similar approach by establishing such frameworks following the European know-how,” Rangelov adds.
More recently, the company expanded its droneport network in Europe with the addition of regional airports in Mannheim City, Germany and Odense, Denmark, which could fare well for the certification process. This network now covers 42 locations in 14 European countries to enable same-day flights.
Within the broad applications for same-day delivery, the company is focused on three specific business cases in e-commerce, pharmaceuticals and spare parts delivery. “We operate on a service model where we sell blocked space capacity on our cargo drones to logistics companies or directly to cargo owners to ship between the droneport networks we build,” Rangelov noted.
For Pen Aviation, the company treats the drone development program similar to manned aircraft, with different phases of tests, certification, then operation, commercialization and industrialization. “This process allows us to address the requirements of the various authorities, whether in Malaysia or in other countries,” Laetitia Boura, head of special projects, told Payload Asia.
With the recovery in passenger travel still hanging in the balance, the prospect of drones ushers in a new era for airlines that are looking for a less costly and more sustainable way to earn revenue in the future. In South Korea, flagship carrier Korean Air plans to develop a multi-purpose hybrid cargo drone in the next four years that can accomodate 250 kilos for both civilian and military purposes. “The cargo UAV will be developed as a VTOL type, in a modular way so that it can be used in various ways according to its different purposes,” the spokesperson told Payload Asia.
In Japan, Wingcopter secured a partnership with ANA and drone orders from general trading company Itochu. The company said the country is a very important market, citing the government’s very progressive approach of integrating drones into everyday life, especially for those living in rural communities.
Elsewhere, Wingcopter secured deals from Spright in the US worth $16 million, whilst Synerjet in Latin America has ordered a ‘significant’ number of drones to resell or lease in their markets. Most recent was the order of seventeen Wingcopter 198s from German logistics company Zeitfracht and its subsidiary German Airways with options to purchase another 115 until 2023.
Whilst progress is clearly evident, Rangelov said there is still a lot to be done in every location and country and this involves private and public collaboration. “We aim to operate in terms of collaborating with the local CAA, ATC operators and airport authorities in order to get this new set of operations as something normal at an airport.”
“We are really targeting the so-called ‘ghost’ airports that currently serve little to no air traffic but can act as a vital transportation hub for the regional economies, effectively offering a cost-effective alternative to trucking and offering the speed and connectivity of air transportation.
In such cases, he says, the company needs to collaborate with local authorities for securing the necessary infrastructure for transforming a runway into a droneport as well as sharing the business opportunities amongst the local industry.
Skyports said constant collaboration within the industry will play a key part of scaling drone services. In March 2022, it announced a partnership with Australia-based vehicle OEM Swoop Aero and German tech company BD Rowa to integrate 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,” the company said.