How the cargo drone ecosystem is changing
Just when cargo drones were taking off and tapping into various sectors, the Covid-19 pandemic has shifted focus. While cargo drones are being used for all kinds of deliveries, companies are actively looking to cater to healthcare cargo drone deliveries because that is the need of the hour, and this in turn may have just put the spotlight on cargo drones for faster delivery.
The Covid-19 pandemic has shaken the world but has also managed to bring it together through collaborations between public-private partnerships and the governments all over especially with medical and humanitarian aid. If there is one aspect of logistics that has been pronounced in the last one year, it has been the need for timely healthcare delivery. In this astronomical task, the role of cargo drones has been transformational in being able to deliver cargo sooner than ever before.
Anticipating the need for a secure network, middle-mile cargo drone developer and operator DRONAMICS announced the development of the world’s first cargo droneport network in November last year. The network includes private airports and airport groups operating more than 35 airports in 11 European countries, for low-cost same-day cargo service. The company will operate same-day flights within the network using its proprietary Black Swan large cargo drones, each with a capacity of 350 kilo and range of up to 2,500 km, reducing time, cost and emissions by up to 80 per cent compared to traditional air cargo. “The response has been tremendous and confirmed what we knew already from our partners to date that there's a lot of demand for our model,” says Svilen Rangelov, founder and CEO, DRONAMICS talking about how it has been received since then. He adds, “Doing it (delivery) at scale to serve millions of customers day in and day out for same-day e-commerce where shipping cost has to be super low, there is no other way than having a dedicated network, so that's what we're building. We see a lot of demand for essential and medical supplies currently that will be naturally very well served by such a network, but ultimately we're building a network based on serving communities for all kinds of goods.” Apart from Liege, Osijek, Seinaioki, Brescia and Skovde, he informs that the other airport partners for the network are in France, Germany, Hungary, Spain, Portugal, the UK, Hungary, and Bulgaria, and the company will soon add Poland, Austria, Greece and Romania, among others.
Delivering all kinds of goods comes with certain challenges and the ever-evolving cargo drone ecosystem has been actively involved in aiding people around the world and at the same time helping governments work on regulations, which would suit every type of drone delivery. In early January, the US Department of Transportation (DOT) appointed 12 new members to their 35-member Drone Advisory Committee (DAC). The members, who represent various Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) interests, include a variety of stakeholders who with the DAC will “help the FAA keep pace with innovation while protecting safety,” said US DOT secretary Elaine L. Chao.
Covid-19 relief work
A majority of the drone deliveries in the last year have revolved around Covid-19 relief efforts. Canadian drone technology company Drone Delivery Canada has been at the forefront of helping the indigenous communities in Beausoleil First Nation and Georgina Island First Nation in Ontario with the help of its Sparrow drone. They were funded through a humanitarian agency called GlobalMedic and the federal government. Michael Zahra, president and CEO, Drone Delivery Canada says, “The challenges have been securing funding because a lot of these communities are funded by the government and we are implementing the projects at the same time while dealing with the pandemic, but it has not created problems. The effort is to coordinate multiple parties.” However, he says the learning has been having project management discipline and they have been doing that successfully as they like to engage in complex operations.
The company is also currently in talks with several government agencies and logistics companies to be able to assist in the Covid-19 vaccine delivery and the discussions are encouraging. Zahra adds,“We have had good conversations about the pandemic in general, whether it is about getting PPE supplies or getting the opportunities for vaccines and discussions with the provincial and federal governments. The vaccine distribution is still in the early stages, but from what I hear it will last the end of the year. There is still a need for PPE and the need for swab testing and that doesn’t change. So it is well going to be there till the end of 2021 and we are optimistic but we are still having discussions.”
While DDC is busy talking to Canadian government agencies, US-based Sabrewing Aircraft Company is also currently working with the Arabian Development & Marketing Co (ADMC) in Saudi Arabia to help in the delivery of food and medicine. Ed De Reyes, chairman and CEO, Sabrewing Company talking about their project says, “We are currently working to obtain World Health Organization/World Food Programme certification so that ADMC can begin to deliver vaccines and food throughout Africa.” Even after interruptions in the supply chain, the California company will soon begin production of 102 Rhaegal-B VTOL aircraft, for which they received the order from ADMC in September 2020. “We will begin production in June and hope to have 4-6 aircraft delivered by December of 2021, with an additional 26 by the end of 2022, and the balance by the end of 2023,” informs De Reyes, adding, “We have Letters of Intent for an additional 250 aircraft that will convert to production orders following the delivery of the first aircraft.”
In Africa, non-profit organisation Dove Air, which is a cooperation partner with the United Nations for drone aid delivery in nine countries, is busy aiding people with medical aid. “We're operating primarily in the Northern Province of Mozambique of Cabo Delgado, our operations focus on assisting our aid partners on equitable access to healthcare products and access to Covid-19 tests,” says Francisco Serra-Martins, Interim CEO, Dove Air. He adds that they are also simultaneously involved in off-peak hours engaging in marine conservation and peacekeeping, which has been recognized by the Geneva Centre of Security Policy.
The DRONAMICS Black Swan drone
Spotlight on healthcare drone delivery
With DDC and Dove Air already helping in Covid-19 related relief, it may just indicate a shift in focus for many cargo drone delivery companies towards the healthcare sector. Now, drones are already being used in Africa to provide healthcare deliveries but with the recent developments, it looks like the pandemic has provided a much-needed impetus to look at the other parts of the world, and Serra-Martins agrees. He says, “Covid-19 has been instrumental in Africa, but also internationally at illustrating that unmanned delivery is viable, what remains moving forward is developing safe, sustainable and equitable solutions which bring value to communities in Africa and worldwide.”
Last October, American UAV logistics company Volansi launched a commercial healthcare drone delivery programme in rural North Carolina. Using its VTOL drones for middle-mile drone delivery, it will pilot the delivery of cold chain medicines from Merck’s Wilson, N.C. manufacturing site to Vidant Healthplex-Wilson, a Vidant Health clinic. A month later, urban drone logistics platform Matternet launched operations for Europe’s largest hospital laboratory, Labor Berlin and its network of 13 hospitals in Berlin. In fact, WeRobotics has secured a contract by Pfizer to engineer a new cargo drone add-on specifically for the industrial drone M300, which can handle even the harshest weather conditions. The company expects it to be closer to 25km compared to the existing M600’s 10km range, with a payload capacity of 1.5 kilos. Recently, the company announced that The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation would be funding them for the World Health Organisation’s (WHO) operational understanding of drone delivery services to transport patient samples. With the help of its recent $22 million Series A funding, even Wingcopter is looking to have a special focus on healthcare-related applications, including the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines.
While the ability of UAVs being used for operations has already been established, Zahra makes not one but three clear use cases for increased use of drones, especially in a post-Covid-19 situation. He says, “There are three use cases that are very important to healthcare drone delivery. The first is remote access - there are many indigenous and non-indigenous communities that are very remote and as a result they sometimes suffer in their healthcare because they do not have infrastructure and access. So providing them with access to medications, food and vaccines is necessary. Second is that deliveries are time critical, maybe you can get there but I can get there quicker with a drone, so being able to get there with a vaccine that is temperature sensitive is necessary. In a rural area, where the ambulance takes half an hour to get there and I can get there in 5-10 minutes with a drone. And the third one would be limiting person to person contact. If you have a hospital that has multiple buildings, or you have a remote indigenous community, you want to prevent bringing in outside influence and people with the virus. So drones limit person-to-person contact.” Interestingly, he adds that limiting person-to-person contact has been one of the new use cases created because of the pandemic.
However, even though healthcare drone delivery is currently taking centrestage, the entire ecosystem is growing and at a fast pace The drone ecosystem is definitely growing but at such times companies have to not only look at securing the deliveries but also look at feasibility of the project. De Reyes believes that profit from cargo deliveries is made from carrying larger quantities than smaller ones, and it is simply because the cost of transportation is spread amongst many kilos of cargo, and not just with a kilo or two. He says, “Even if the cost is four times more expensive to operate a large cargo drone than it is a small parachute-payload drone, the large cargo drone has the ability to distribute the cost of the flight over thousands of kilos of payload. Therefore, large cargo drones lower the per-dose transport cost of vaccines as well as greatly reducing the per-meal transport costs of food programmes.” He adds, “The capability of a larger drone such as Sabrewing’s Rhaegal is to provide thousands of doses - still refrigerated at the proper temperatures - for pennies per dose as opposed to many dollars per dose.”
With the increasing number of drone operations, it is also important to have trained professionals and Dove Air has been actively involved in training locals across Africa in Nigeria, South Africa, Sierra Leone and Cameroon. The need to integrate local talent is reinforced through the Dove Air academy which trains the operators while giving opportunities to professionals too, especially those who are affected by job loss due to the Covid-19 pandemic. “In Mozambique, we've been fortunate to be able to onboard experienced aviation talent who have been sadly furloughed during the Covid-19 pandemic,” Serra-Martins adds.