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Tilting towards the internet during the pandemic is no surprise but the shutdown may permanently change consumer behaviour. While working from home became a conventional term for millions, the older generation has shifted their interests to online shopping for medicines, groceries among others.

When the world came to a standstill at the end of March, there was zero visibility in the future of air cargo. But the impediments did not last long for the aviation industry as it went to exploring skies in delivering essential supplies. When pilot-operated passenger freighters fly with a record of 69 tonnes in belly today, there are unmanned aerial vehicles which contribute in helping people in the landlocked regions to deliver prescriptions, medicines, masks, vaccines, food, etc.

Africa serves as a testing ground for drones

Africa is one such region which has seen an increasing number of drones hovering over in recent times. US-based Zipline which has a major contribution in delivering vaccines, blood and medicines to Africa, continued its activities during Covid-19.  It has delivered Covid-19 test samples from patients in more than 1,000 health facilities located in Ghana to laboratories in Accra and Kumasi. This autonomous fixed-wing aircraft has a payload capacity of 1.76 kilogrammes and can fly up to 145 kilometres/hour.

Kenya has recently promulgated its remotely piloted aircraft system (RPAS) regulations during the pandemic. Lawrence K Amukono, chief, national continuous monitoring coordinator, Kenya Civil Aviation Authority in a recently concluded webinar hosted by Logistics Update Africa on ‘Drones for improving healthcare supply chains and creating drone corridors for Africa' stated, “We have seen the desire to opt drone technology during Covid-19 and this has led to the acceleration in providing approvals.”

Nairobi-based Astral Aerial’s chief operations officer Geoffrey Nyaga has announced the partnership with Wingcopter for last-mile delivery solutions during the webinar. He comments,

“It is important for all of us to develop solutions for the consumers that reduce delivery times. This partnership combines the local expertise we have with state-of-the-art technology offering the best solutions in Africa and India. We aim to develop a strong network and solutions across Africa for expected Covid-19 vaccine.”

So far, the company has received approvals to import some of its drones as it awaits approvals for testing the Yamaha Fazer R and other drones. Julie Makena, engineer - safety officer, Astral Aerial says, “We are planning to implement multi-rotor drones for crowd monitoring and control, border monitoring as well as public service, especially in our highly congested border points, markets etc. We believe that drones will go a long way in helping health and response agencies maintain the Covid-19 prevention guidelines within their line of duty.” 

As the pandemic is going to continue for some more time, Yamaha Fazer R of Astral will soon make a valuable contribution to the emergency response efforts. The vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) helicopter has a speed 75 kilometres/hour, a payload capacity of 32 kilogrammes, a range of 250 kilometres, and is powered by gasoline. She adds, “This needs to be done before we can take part in emergency response efforts. We anticipate that we will receive approval to test the capabilities of various platforms (drones) in our environment. These represent a new way of health services and medical supplies delivery, but in this pandemic times, organisations must begin shifting more to autonomous technology, to provide safer solutions.”

Demand for drone delivery in Europe, UK and North America rises

In the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) ‘Technology Pioneers 2020, Wingcopter, a German drone manufacturer has been selected as one of the drone companies for its contributions in providing hard-to-reach communities with essential and life-saving healthcare supplies. The selection gives Wingcopter to contribute to WEF initiatives over the next two years, working with policymakers and private sector leaders to help define the global agenda on key issues. 

During this outbreak, the company has worked with Skyports and Thales for NHS Scotland for delivering Covid-19 test kits and personal protective equipment (PPE) between remote medical facilities. Tom Plümmer, co-founder and CEO of Wingcopter notes, “We have conducted a drone delivery trial which consisted of two-way flights between the Lorn and Islands Hospital in Oban and Mull & Iona Community Hospital in Craignure 10 miles (16 kilometres) away on the Isle of Mull. The flights by drone shortened delivery times from up to 6 hours one-way by ground transport and ferry to around 15 minutes. In addition to saving time and resource, drone deliveries allow to keep front line medical and delivery personnel safe and focused on their actual work. The trial flights were operated by Skyports using Wingcopter and planned through Thales’ drone operations management platform - SOARIZON.”

In the first week of June, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC), Air Canada and Pontiac Group have entered into a commercial agreement with The David McAntony Gibson Foundation to deploy DDC's patented Sparrow drone delivery solution to the Beausoleil First Nation (BFN) Community in Ontario.  Michael Zahra, president & CEO, DDC comments, “Healthcare and remote indigenous communities are looking to use drones in an attempt to self-isolate and limit person-to-person contact while still keeping the supply chain open to move CV19 and other goods.  It is used to move supplies like PPE, hygiene kits, testing swabs etc.  We look for further projects to come.”  

Regulatory frameworks assist drone start-ups

Already since a while, it has been clear that drones will play an ever-increasing part in the logistics mix. As the lockdown has been easing in some parts of the world and social distancing will continue to be part of our lives for a few more years, the demand for e-commerce, food products will soon return to the markets. Commenting on developing drones to address the surge in cargo demand, Plümmer mentions,

“The technology is ripe and more and more regulators worldwide are currently putting a regulatory framework in place to ensure that the potential of autonomous unmanned aerial vehicles can be exploited in compliance with the highest security and data protection standards.  To keep up with demand and meet the requirements of customers and partners, our organisation must also grow very quickly, become more professional and continuously improve. Therefore, we are currently hiring experienced experts from all sorts of industries who will help us scale even faster.”

The German start-up in Vanuatu has been delivering vaccines for children within minutes to 19 remote health clinics on behalf of the local ministry of health and supported by UNICEF. In Tanzania and Malawi, Wingcopter was able to prove that drone delivery can shorten patients’ waiting time. It even focuses on the delivery of parcels and food in BVLOS flights over long distances.

DDC’s Sparrow, which operated during the crisis, has a maximum range of 30 kilometres, speed of 80 kph with a payload capacity of 4.5 kilogrammes. The GPS-based rotorcraft drone operates on 8 electric motors.  Zahra explains, “Drones are already the future of business. We are commercially operating with real projects and revenue today.  The pandemic has certainly raised the profile of the company and the industry as an ideal use-case for limiting person-to-person contact as well as a backup to the existing supply chain as part of business continuity or disaster recovery planning for many companies.”

Astral believes that its cargo delivery drone can perform fully autonomous flights, as all contingency flight control operations are carried out from a safe and secure ground control station, thus the risk of human to human transmission is drastically reduced. Makena states, “It will be challenging for organisations to continue with their processes and systems as it was before the pandemic, despite making the necessary efforts to implement health and safety guidelines. For example, in regards to food and e-commerce deliveries, there is less risk of contamination with reduced contact. Autonomous technologies can ensure this is achieved.”

For Sabrewing, air cargo was not an afterthought in response to Covid-19. “Many competitors who have suddenly switched to air cargo are neglecting some of the other necessities of transporting goods by air. Sabrewing, on the other hand, has (from the very beginning) been designed to meet the needs of air cargo. Indeed, we are seeing some of Sabrewing's designs show up in our newly-reconfigured competitor’s designs,” states Ed De Reyes, chairman and chief executive officer.

Sabrewing is currently flight testing its aircraft, however, even the prototype has the capability of flying over 1,800 kilometres and delivering over 1,000 kilogrammes of medicine, blood (including refrigerated blood products), PPE, medical supplies like bandages, antiseptic and even complete ventilators. “Our larger aircraft Rhaegal-B has the capability of delivering entire medical suites and even a self-contained ICU “module” that can be “stacked” to provide a completely isolated ICU compartment,” he emphasises.

Future of cargo drones and safety challenges

Drones safely operating in controlled airspace with both manned and unmanned aircraft is a major step in the industry. A new deal is letting Edmonton International Airport (EIA) be the world’s first drone delivery site with a commercial agreement with DDC.  Zahra observes, “This is exciting as it was the first announced project globally for a hub-and-spoke drone logistics network at a major, busy international airport.  We are planning implementation and we look for the project to start later this year.”

Agreeing to the fact of having a hub for drones in the airport to enhance its visibility in the cargo business, Makena declares, “This will allow the airport to develop internal processes and procedures for aircraft navigation services with integrated manned and unmanned aircraft operation. This will be a major milestone in the standardisation of drone operations within controlled airspace, which will in turn boost industry uptake of cargo drones within airports and other areas as well.”

Sabrewing’s Rhaegal which expects to take off in early 2021 (a full year ahead of schedule) believes that its drones will be certificated to fly in any airspace without waivers or special air traffic control arrangements – even into the largest and busiest airports.

Every drone company is striving towards Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) permission because from an economical and logistical perspective BVLOS operations make much more sense than Visual Line of Sight (VLOS). Countries around the world are amending their drone policies so that they can allow unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to fly for maximum efficiency. Setting its eyes on BVLOS drone experiments, directorate general of civil aviation (DGCA) in India has selected ten companies to run pilot projects, which includes selected consortia such as Asteria Aerospace, Dunzo, ShopX, SpiceXpress, and Throttle Aerospace Systems among others.

“We have flown BVLOS in Canada and the US long ago. As the regulatory environment evolves, even further use cases will come to light and there will be a movement to more projects in higher density population areas,” Zahra denotes.

With a speed up to 150 kilometres/hour, fully electric Wingcopter 178 has a payload capacity of 6 kilogrammes and a range of 120 kilometres. Plümmer highlights few points to be put in place for BVLOS to happen,

“First, the legislator must establish a framework which should be similar to general aviation standards to ensure a high level of safety. We are actively involved with the relevant working and certification bodies in defining these rules.  The second challenge will be to develop a uniform system in which all manned and unmanned aircraft in the airspace can be identified and communicate with each other - without disturbing the privacy of those not involved. Last but not least, an important element in tapping the great potential of unmanned civilian technology is, of course, public acceptance.” 

Wingcopter mentions that it has clear advantages over conventional multicopters. For example, it can switch off half of its engines during forward flight and thus fly much more quietly. This makes it possible to use a large number of delivery drones in the sky and to relieve the roads without disturbing people on the ground.  Recently, the company has received the second line of funding from Corecam Capital, which will be used to further expand the team and improve its production process.

Makena comments, “Permission for BVLOS operation will give us the ability for extended range operations, which will open up opportunities in different verticals, from long-range deliveries, within the county and more importantly for regional flights. For the drone industry as a whole, it would mean people could be trained in BVLOS operation which will, in turn, lead to the more local capacity for BVLOS operation in mapping, security monitoring, search and rescue, disaster response, and deliveries etc.”

Major drone delivery operations and tie-ups around the world

In association with the government of Maharashtra, Zipline has announced its Indian launch with a grant from Serum Institute of India (SII). In the first phase of operation, two distribution centres located near Pune and Nandurbar are identified to service 120 million citizens over the coming years. Asaad Joubran, business development of Zipline states, “We are ready to help expand universal health care to millions and combat the pandemic as soon as we receive regulatory approval to fly.”  Zipline flies BVLOS in all countries it operates.

In another development, DSV Panalpina will utilise DDC on a second route, delivering healthcare-related cargo from the forwarder's warehouse in Milton, Ontario to customers locally. Sparrow drone will drop cargo in a designated area shared by multiple DSV customers, then return to DSV’s DroneSpot.  The route is approximately 3.5 kilometres and flights will be remotely monitored by DDC from its operations control centre located in Vaughan. The service will begin in the third quarter of the year, with the contract lasting three months. 

DDC is looking forward for the launch of Robin XL late summer 2020 and Condor in Q4 of 2020.  Zahra says, “We are very excited to lead the industry in terms of the depth and breadth of our solution.   Our system is designed to be airframe agnostic, meaning we can put our system on other unmanned drones or even existing manned fixed-wing or rotary-wing aircraft to integrate them into our system.” 

With a payload capacity of 11.3 kilogrammes, Robin XL can fly up to a maximum speed of 85 kph in a range of 60 kilometres, with other features of Sparrow. While Condor is a helicopter operated on two-stroke gasoline, in a maximum speed of 120 kph covering a range of 200 kilometres with a payload capacity of 180 kilogrammes.

In the meantime, Astral has registered students to the RPAS Training Academy, and plan to take up trainees in different roles. It is inking MOUs with different development and response organisations to enable uptake of drone technology within the organisations. “We are also improving our internal systems to achieve digital management of RPAS operations, RPAS operational safety management as well as a digital application for operations approvals.  After this, we shall test the Fazer R and the Flyox drones, not just in Kenya, but across the East African region,” concludes Makena.

Recently, Wingcopter has been named one of nine winners of the #SmartDevelopmentHack. Through this global hackathon, the German Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) solicited innovative digital solutions to tackle the challenges caused by the coronavirus outbreak in low- and middle-income countries. Together with its partners UNICEF and African Drone and Data Academy (ADDA) it has been awarded up to €3 million to set up a locally operated delivery drone network in Malawi, giving on-demand access to medical supplies such as Covid-19 test kits or vaccines (once available). “In parallel, together with our partners, we will build local capacity through two distinct training programs for 160 Malawian youth. After proving the concept’s viability and successful implementation in Malawi, we plan to adapt the concept and scale to Rwanda,” Plümmer underscores. He further stated that more details on the partnership with UPS will be disclosed in due time.

The core innovation behind the company’s efficient electric delivery drones is the patented tilt-rotor mechanism, which enables a seamless transition between two drone modes within seconds: multicopter for VTOL and fixed-wing for fast and quiet long-range forward flight. They can cover a distance of up to 75 miles (120 kilometres) with just one battery charge and hold a Guinness world record for performing a top speed of 150 mph (240 kilometres/hour).

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