To say there’s been an explosion in the advancement of Remotely Piloted Aircraft (or Drone) technology in the last few years would be an understatement. As little as ten years ago if you wanted to get good aerial footage, you needed to hire a helicopter but today anyone can get cinema-grade footage with consumer drones. That same level of innovation and investment is-right now-cultivating in the field of drone deliveries. Let’s take a look at where drone delivery is at right now and where it’s heading in the future.
The current state
Right now, the commercial applications of drone technology are rapidly expanding with a forecasted worldwide growth for the industry from US$4 billion to US$5 billion between 2015 and 2020 (Frost and Sullivan, 2018). Many manufacturers and start ups targeted this forecasted increase and took advantage of it to design faster, cheaper and more efficient drone delivery services.
Australia is uniquely placed to benefit from delivery services owing to it’s already low levels of crewed aircraft traffic, vast unpopulated areas for testing and operation, a myriad to use cases and a progressive regulatory approach fueled by CASA who already taking feedback on how to make drone operations more streamlined for users.
Around the world the shipping industry is gearing up to transform the costly approaches across land, rail, and sea into low-cost pilotless cargo aircraft with the goal of bringing cost and delivery time down. The drone delivery industry is still in its early stages and globally there are several technological, regulatory and social barriers to overcome.
Elroy Air large long range cargo delivery
The most obvious use case is meeting consumer demand with unprecedented levels of convenience. E-commerce is a market expected to grow to 6.5 trillion USD (Statista) by 2022 and it’s easy to picture how nice it would be to do away with the unreliability of traditional post (especially in busy periods) and have your purchases dropped off to you within hours of ordering.
There are also examples underway right now of the benefits of delivering medical services from a central hub. This could be anything from general supplies to delivery of sensitive products like blood, vaccines, and medicines. Having drones available to move medical services around could also give remote communities greater access to testing by allowing the rapid transportation of pathology samples. Zipline is currently one of the largest medical drone delivery services working in Rwanda to deliver blood from a central hub, minimizing waste and solving blood supply issues without increasing demand for donation.
Zipline medical dleivery throughout Africa and the US
The field of logistics also stands to benefit greatly from methodologies like JIT (just in time) supply chain management and on demand inventory helping retail locations more efficiently manage stock. For delivery of goods, it also helps to reduce sorting points by delivering goods directly from a central location to the end customer.
Unlike traditional methods of delivery, drone technologies can be largely automated allowing a pilot to oversee multiple drones as they’re in flight and only need to intervene in abnormal scenarios. The idea of operating multiple drones at once by using automation is supported in the delivery field by an Unmanned Traffic System (UTM). This system allows individual drone users to upload a flight plan and reserve airspace for the flight, automatically routing other uncrewed users of the airspace around each other. This significantly reduces the risk and need for pilot intervention by using AI to smartly manage the airspace for pilots, like a virtual Air Traffic Control. It also allows greater consideration of the safety of crewed flights by feeding in AI assisted detect and avoid systems and ADS-B to prevent collisions.
To get drone delivery off the ground, companies also need to be able to fly further through Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). BVLOS technology allows pilots to remotely monitor and fly aircraft from a location where they don’t need to maintain Visual Line of Sight with the aircraft. Even a large drone isn’t visible to the naked eye more than 1.5-2 kms away, so you wouldn’t want to limit all your deliveries to the same few blocks. With more drones entering the market with ranges venturing into the hundreds of kilometers BVLOS is critical to enabling delivery that can substantially improve on existing long range delivery options like road and rail transport.
BVLOS operations lead us to a logical place; remote operations. Letting the pilots of these drones get set up somewhere else and log in to operate drones around the world. This minimizes the risk and travel times for pilots and negates the need to recruit pilots who might not live near distribution centers and warehouses. Operating remotely also eliminates one of the highest costs in drone operations: transporting your staff to and from the operational area. Remote operations also allow delivery services to think of One-To-Many operations where a single pilot operates multiple drones, reducing staffing costs and ensuring each pilot can manage more than one delivery at a time.
Like all new industries there are limitations to overcome. For drone delivery the biggest obstacle is the same one that’s plagued crewed aviation for years, weight vs lift. As newer drones are developed the potential for bigger payloads grows every year, but the question of how much you can carry, vs how far you can take it will continue to be the biggest limit on applications for drone delivery until it’s overcome. Many companies are already hard at work on the issue, and some have even demonstrated lifting capabilities in the 150-200kg range.
Hand in hand with weight is the useful range of the drone, there’s no point getting 200kg off the ground if you can only carry it over a few streets. Recent advancements in VTOL aircraft that use a traditional quad-motor set up to get flying and then act more like an airplane driven by a fifth forward flight motor have brought huge leaps forward in range and endurance by taking advantage of the reduced battery needed to maintain forward flight using a single motor and wings.
Public acceptance is another key factor. For drone delivery to become a big market segment the public need to be excited about the benefits (like faster delivery time and greater variety of on-demand products). There also needs to be significant work in ensuring the noise of drone operations doesn’t impact people in a way traditional delivery doesn’t. Clever drone design and flight planning are needed to keep everyone safe and ensure the drones don’t disturb the peace.
As technology advances and solutions emerge that solve weight vs lift and automation needs, we can look forward to some truly revolutionary ideas. For years scientists and artists have been talking about flying cars and while you might think they’re still a while away, there is work underway right now in Australia to start making them an accessible reality.
Advancing drone technology will help us bridge the gap between remote communities and city hubs and give us travel and transport options that look like they’re straight out of a science fiction movie. Deliveries on demand, air taxis and accessibility for everyone to experience the view from up there are on the way.
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At Hover UAV we assist drone programs from conception to full implementation. We are a passionate team of experts, with diverse skill sets and backgrounds gained in sectors such as maritime, crewed aviation, defense, corporate and engineering sectors.