There has been a lot of buzz behind the development of unmanned aerial vehicles and the possibilities they bring for urban air mobility (UAM). Especially with a company like Amazon getting into the business.
Many people believe that unmanned aerial vehicles are opening the doors to move towards flying taxis. However, the greatest development happening at the moment comes in the form of cargo drones.
Let us dive into the details of these amazing artifacts that will surely make a difference in the upcoming years.
Cargo Drone: What is it?
A cargo drone is an unmanned aircraft capable of carrying a load to the desired destination in an environmentally friendly manner.
What is cargo drone hybrid flight?
Hybrid flight makes reference to the fact that drones are capable of mixing both VTOL (Vertical Takeoff and Landing) and conventional flight, usually called fixed-wing flight. This is a feature that makes these aircraft very versatile compared to their competition.
Can drones carry cargo?
There are different cargo drones sizes with different load capacities. From small drones for delivery services such as the ones developed by Amazon with a focus on 5-pound maximum payload capacity to a larger aircraft such as the Rhaegal. This unmanned aircraft is capable of lifting 5,400 pounds in vertical take-off and landing, fly at a cruise speed of 205 miles per hour and carry packages, not only in urban areas but also to remote locations in rural areas within a 1,120 miles range.
Apart from the cargo capacity, the clear advantages of cargo drones are:
No traffic jams problems. They won’t be using roads.
Transcending geographical barriers without the need for large infrastructure. They can fly over mountains, lakes, unnavigable rivers and similar natural obstacles that make some areas difficult to reach by conventional transportation.
Environmentally friendly flight for electric cargo drones. Remote flight control – new era for cargo pilots. No crew is needed onboard which reduces costs and risk of damage to human lives.
Minimal air space required. When compared to large-scale airplanes, both horizontal and vertical distances between flying units can be reduced.
What are cargo drones applications?
Clearly, small cargo drones are mainly thought of as a great solution for small package delivery. A good example was mentioned above with Amazon’s 5-pound capacity drones. However, there is more a cargo drone can do.
Small cargo drones applications
It is important to note that small cargo drones, sometimes called last-mile delivery drones have some limitations. This type of small cargo aircraft can only fly directly to a destination within a short-range and in good weather conditions. They can also deliver fewer items when compared to a larger type of aircraft.
Nevertheless, there are some interesting applications for small cargo drones. Automation in manufacturing industries has always been important to increasing efficiency and productivity. And drones are taking part in automation. Audi is currently using drones to move parts to the exact point of the assembly line where they are needed, and this is done automatically with the use of sensors. Therefore, we could expect more production lines dropping the pallet jack in exchange for this new system.
Of course, as Ed De Reyes, CEO, and co-founder of Sabrewing Aircraft, Inc., mentioned in an interview, last-mile drones are more interesting for people in the city to see their food arrive quickly to their backyard after ordering from a cell phone, but this may not be as interesting for people living in remote villages.
Large cargo drones applications
Drones could also be a great help for the people on land during a disaster relief operation. A common practice in those situations is sending an aircraft that would drop supplies with a parachute. However, depending on weather conditions this is usually challenging to do with accuracy and without endangering the aircraft crew. Here is where a drone can be vital.
A company that operates drones can have one take off from their premises, control the flight remotely, have the aircraft reach the disaster area, and as the drone lands vertically, they can deliver the supplies on the ground at the exact location, barely with no risk.
We Robotics is a not-for-profit organization that presents great examples of these humanitarian applications. One of them is Zipline, a company that has been delivering 200 different medical supplies in Ghana.
But this does not stop here, drones are already disrupting the way supplies are sent to ships and offshore platforms, with a potential 30% cost reduction. Also, there are use cases for middle-mile delivery, thus making life easier for warehouses and distribution centers.
Moreover, with non-military drones accounting for a market volume of USD 5.5 billion, there’s plenty of room for this technology to grow, especially in the cargo delivery sector.
Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: How they beat other solutions?
Historically, land transportation has been the cornerstone of supply chains. Then, for larger distances and exportation the airplane took the role. Now, a new type of aircraft could become the centerpiece of everything related to moving cargo.
Drones could become the new kings of the skies, a space currently dominated by commercial flights. This could also mean a great improvement for congested cities, where 20% of the urban traffic, as well as 30% of the pollution, comes from cargo transportation.
New developments in this technology are moving towards the possibility of autonomous air transportation, and this could be huge for the industry. Elroy Air is a company developing an autonomous system called Chaparral, which they expect to be great for humanitarian purposes as the ones mentioned above, but also to open the doors for partnerships with big players such as UPS, DHL, and FedEx.
That being said, it is clear that a drone is better than a truck because it can move faster, does not need roads, and does not create pollution. Also, those with a more extended flight range could be better than airplanes because some costs may be reduced, such as the ones related to the crew, among other aspects.
Unfortunately, there are some challenges to overcome before seeing a supply chain system ruled by drones.
Delivery drones: The present and the future
Delivery drones fly in different cities worldwide as you read this, and many are being tested to deliver medical supplies in remote areas.
Moreover, large cargo drones are being tested to improve logistics for companies where timing is critical. This means that unmanned aircraft will be used to carry larger loads to places that are much farther, instead of limiting their use to quick deliveries within a city.
Of course, there are still some regulatory hurdles and obstacles to surpass.
Currently, there are no specific rules and standards to govern the safety and efficient drone operations. Instead, they are subject to general aviation regulations, limiting how delivery drones can fly.
Cargo drone challenges
Other challenges faced by cargo drones include:
Infrastructure limitations, such as the need for more launching pads and charging stations systems.
New rules for low-level and high-level flights.
Standards for systems to keep the quality of the cargo. This may include packaging and temperature controls.
Economic feasibility. The whole ecosystem for the drones to work correctly can be expensive, so a thorough economic study might be necessary before investing.
Customers’ willingness to pay for express service.
People are seeing drones flying in residential areas as privacy issues. Fifty-four percent of Americans polled in a 2017 Pew Research Center survey said they disapproved of it.
Cargo security. Since drones are unmanned, the theft of delivered goods might increase without proper supervision.
On the other hand, there are also technical difficulties to address. While energy requirements represent a challenge as it has been for electric vehicles, maintenance may also be a significant concern for cargo drones manufacturers and operators.
Parimal Kopardekar, director of NASA’s Aeronautics Research Institute in Mountain View, California, said, “these aircraft will need periodic maintenance of some kind, like a car, so it will need access to parts and quick access to technicians because nobody wants to wait around for an aircraft sitting on the ground doing nothing”. This could be taken as an attention call, especially coming from an expert like him.
These difficulties can only be overcome by collaboration between the different parties that are involved and affected by decisions made regarding the implementation of this logistics solution on a large scale.
This means that policymakers, manufacturers, logistics companies, distribution centers, and civilians should work together to develop the required ecosystem.
Federal Aviation Administration Position (FAA)
Fortunately, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking steps to test and grant approval to cargo drones as soon as possible. After seeing the United States military having flown unmanned aerial vehicles for many years over national airspace with safety, they may consider it an excellent alternative to trucks. Moreover, the FAA has noted that using drones is less risky now that there is less air traffic due to the COVID pandemic.
Moreover, big logistics companies such as DHL and UPS are already putting a lot of money into delivery drones to improve their operations. And there is data to support it.
It is known that DHL has closed a deal with Dronamics as their drone operator for its logistics and parcel network in Europe, although it is not the first company to do it. It includes around 4,000 cargo drones with a cargo capacity to carry 770 pounds and 1,500 miles of autonomy. The unmanned aircraft developed by Dronamics involved in this deal is called The Black Swan.
This gives one reading for the future of delivery drones. The way to deliver goods will definitely be different.
How much do delivery drones cost?
The quick answer is that delivery drones cost is anywhere between a few thousand dollars and $60,000 depending on size and cargo capacity, among other features.
However, the truth is that there are more costs associated with cargo drones operations.
Those costs translate into what the customer will have to pay for the delivery of their goods, which is part of the difficulties mentioned above.
Currently, people have free delivery, which has been a standard offer at online stores. Therefore, delivery service companies will have to manage their operational costs in order to come up with a fair price while keeping profitable if they want to implement drones at a large scale.
Common Operational Costs
Standard costs associated with the operation of delivery drones include:
Ground charging station
Computers and software for drone functions and control
So, the players in the logistics industry must be competent to find a way to limit those costs and derive them to the service price to make delivery drones economically feasible. Customers will likely be unwilling to pay more than what they already pay for their deliveries.
Despite the challenges that this technology is facing, cargo drones are very promising for commercial cargo.
A good example is a report presented by ARK Invest where Tasha Keeney suggested that Prime Air could manage to charge just $1 to their customers while having costs of 88 cents for unmanned aircraft deliveries done in less than an hour. This would mean a 50% return on their investment in drone infrastructure, making them very competitive.
Other companies charge between $5-$13 for same-day delivery service to their customers, so people would be willing to make the switch and pay much less to have their goods delivered. Also, data from Morgan Stanley suggests that the industry could reach $1.5 trillion by the year 2040.
It may take longer to see drones moving passengers, but this disruption in the market makes it look like a possible thing in the future. For now, we will have to wait and see what the future holds.
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