Remotely piloted unmanned air vehicles will be carrying freight loads of two tonnes or more within two years in parts of Africa and the US, although autonomous operations in most countries may still be a decade away, reports Will Waters
Various commercial cargo drones able to carry payloads of several tonnes are moving close to launch, including from next year in Africa and from 2020 in remote parts of the US, drone developers and stakeholders closely involved in their development have revealed.
Although fully autonomous commercial cargo drone operations may still be a decade away from being allowed in most developed countries, particularly in urban locations, remotely piloted vehicles are now expected to be carrying real cargo loads much sooner in certain limited, predominantly rural, locations, and in the handful of African countries that have adopted a more open approach to regulating commercial drones. And in the US, remotely piloted drones could be carrying cargo loads of around two tonnes in parts of Alaska within two years – although not initially commercial payloads – with non-urban locations in other states likely to be added over the next two to three years, and potentially drones operating out of major conventional airports within four to five years.
Although a number of companies, including postal and express operators and e-commerce innovators such as Amazon, have for some time been trialling drone delivery of small shipments of up to 2kg, mostly using quad-copter or ‘hobby drone’ type technology, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology capable of carrying heavy cargo loads have obviously been more challenging to develop. But several projects now have significant momentum and are set to begin real-world air cargo operations.
Astral Aerial Solutions, a subsidiary of African cargo airline group Astral Aviation, is in the process of setting up a drone operation in East Africa, reports founder Sanjeev Gadhia. The company, which last year won the 2017 IATA cargo innovation award for its work on developing a UAV traffic management system for Africa, has already conducted some successful test flights at a NATO site in Norway using the Flyox cargo drone, designed by Spain’s Singular Aircraft, which can carry a cargo payload of almost 2 tonnes over a range of up to 1,200 km. It is also exploring the use of a small aid drone able to carry a 10 kg payload, and the medium-sized Falcon F250 drone, able to carry up to 250 kg of cargo over a distance of around 150 km.
But Gadhia is particularly excited about the potential of the Flyox, which he expects will begin flying operations next year on behalf of aid organisations within East Africa. “We have received permission to conduct pilot tests, and I expect to do those in the next three to four months,” he told a conference session at the TIACA Air Cargo Forum in October.
“We operated three successful test flights at a NATO airbase in September and October, including autonomous take-off and landing – both day and night – travelling a distance of around 260 km,” he notes. “So, this is now something that is real.”
In his home country Kenya, he sees particular potential for deliveries into locations not well served by road networks, carrying cargo for the medical, e-commerce, and humanitarian sectors. And more widely, the company sees significant potential carrying general cargo loads of up to 2,000 kg from a central hub to remote air strips – for example for the oil and gas or wider energy sector – as well as the transport of relief cargo to remote areas where conventional cargo planes are unable to land due to insufficient infrastructure; and the transport of urgently needed medical supplies, laboratory samples, vaccines and blood to remote and inaccessible areas.
He says drones have a significant advantage over manned flights in terms of cost, flexibility in flight schedules, fewer crew requirements, and the ability to land on multiple surfaces including land and water.
Gadhia sees the greatest potential initially being to offer multiple drops – perhaps five – from the aircraft on a single flight, with the cargo potentially being delivered by parachute. A parachute delivery system has already been trialled, with one such system already being used in a drone operation in Rwanda performed by US logistics technology company Zipline, delivering small shipments of blood to health centres in remote locations, in a project involving several parties including the Rwandan government (see box: Zipline prepares to expand successful drone delivery system to the US).
With Astral already in possession of an air operator’s certificate (AOC), Gadhia believes the company will be able to offer a commercial service starting some time next year in the parts of Africa most open to drone operations, such as Kenya, Rwanda, Tanzania, and South Africa.
Meanwhile, the prospect of cargo drone operations in the US are also now tantalisingly near. US company Sabrewing has been working on developing three different sized vertical-takeoff drones, the first of which could be operating test flights in remote parts of Alaska as early as 2019, and carrying cargo payloads – albeit not commercial payloads, initially – from 2020. And it also has the backing of a paying commercial customer that has signed up for a number of units.
Sabrewing has been working on three models: the Rhaegal is designed to carry a cargo payload of up to 350 kg over distances of up to 360 nautical miles (670 km); the Wyvern is designed to carry a payload of two tonnes over a range of up to 800 nautical miles; and the Draco, which is designed to carry up to 1.2 tonnes of cargo over distances of up to 5,000 nautical miles. But CEO Ed de Reyes explains that the Draco is “a technology demonstrator aircraft” that is not going to be available for sale or for commercial purposes.
“It is merely to demonstrate that a drone can take off and fly across the Pacific with a payload greater than 1 tonne and land vertically at its destination,” he adds. Designed to fly from Japan to the United States, non-stop, it will compete in the ‘Pacific Drone Challenge’ in 2020, and act as a demonstrator for potential customers.
De Reyes describes the drones as “semiautonomous air vehicles, operated remotely by a pilot”. He anticipates that initially they will be operated by one pilot per aircraft, although over time the pilots would be able to operate multiple aircraft simultaneously, perhaps four at a time. He believes that is a more realistic scenario for the next few years, with fully autonomous flights probably a decade away in markets such as the US.
“We have received permission to start testing – flying − in 2019, and we will start carrying full payloads in 2020, but we do not expect full certification of the aircraft until 2023,” he says. “By law, the payloads that we carry prior to certification cannot be for revenue service; the aircraft can only carry payloads for revenue service after they have received their type certificates.
“Special FAA rules allow some aircraft operators to carry cargo for non-revenue purposes, and our launch customer may choose to do so prior to full certification of the aircraft, as long as it meets the FAA’s requirements for such operations.”
The aircraft will fly at an altitude of between 10,000 feet (3,000 metres) and 23,000 feet, which is a zone that few other aircraft fly in. These will be operating initially in Alaska, serving communities that cannot be reached by road.
Without revealing the identity of the company’s launch customer, he explains that one of the initial criteria that the company used to design the Wyvern “was the ability to fly from Anchorage to the North Slope − specifically petroleum operations there. It is about 800 nautical miles from Anchorage to the North Slope − so that was the driver for being able to load the aircraft full of cargo and have enough fuel to make it to an oil rig 800 nautical miles away from Anchorage.” But the range of the Wyvern could be extended by carrying additional fuel in the aircraft instead of cargo, in theory flying “well over 3,000 miles”.
Compared with traditional air freight vehicles, Sabrewing says its Wyvern UAV will be about the size of a Cessna-208 (Caravan) or Quest Kodiak, with similar acquisition costs and operational speed, but with almost double the payload of either aircraft and lower operating and maintenance costs.
One point that distinguishes Sabrewing from traditional aircraft and most other drones is “the fact that we can take off and land anywhere on Earth”, De Reyes points out, thanks to its vertical-takeoff and landing capabilities. “And we can do so in weather that would ground any other aircraft − especially those that fly like a ‘regular’ aircraft,” he adds.
De Reyes says market research suggests that there will be a need for around 3,000 of these kinds of aircraft between now and 2030, although he believes the market will actually be bigger than that, including communities around the world that face similar connectivity issues to Alaska’s.
Elsewhere in the US, other models are also under development, including an ambitious plan by US-based Natilus to develop a 100-tonne cargo payload drone. Although the emergence of that particular vehicle is still several years away, the company is also working on three other types, with payloads of 0.3 tonnes, 3.4 tonnes, and 60 tonnes, respectively.
In fact, Natilus already has a 0.3 tonne prototype that it has just begun testing in the San Francisco bay area, with FAA approval. The 10-metre “technology demonstrator” aims to “prove key technologies needed to start construction of the 3.4 tonne vehicle”, explains Aleksey Matyushev, CEO and co-founder of Natilus.
The 3.4 tonne payload vehicle is being developed for the integrator market and is next in the development pipeline. Indeed, Matyushev says the company already has an agreement from one of the major integrators to purchase multiple units of the aircraft. And he says Astral has also signed a letter of intent to purchase the 3.4 tonne vehicle.
“A lot of these aircraft have been designed with e-commerce deliveries in mind,” he says. Matyushev explains that the aircraft will operate at conventional airports − for example, potentially, to and from FedEx’s Memphis hub.
With a large cargo side door, it will be capable of carrying traditional air cargo containers. “So, operationally, it will be a turnkey operation,” Matyushev points out. “We anticipate the first flight in two years.”
Although full ‘type certification’ of the aircraft is likely take a further year and a half after that, following completion of the various safety and other regulatory requirements, he believes it will be possible to undertake some limited commercial operations on restricted non-Metropolitan lanes within perhaps two and a half years from now. But within four years, he expects to see the aircraft operating to and from traditional airports, alongside manned aircraft.
Meanwhile, in Europe, Dronamics is working on a different type of cargo drone concept. The company’s ‘Black Swan’ cargo drone has already operated some successful initial test flights, with the capability of carrying up to 350 kg of cargo over a range of up to 2,800 km. with the unit cost of around $100,000, co-founder Svilen Rangelov estimates that it will be between 50% an 80% cheaper to operate than current competitors. “We have developed it as a maximum fuel-efficiency cargo aircraft for e-commerce,” he says.
However, he does not expect these aircraft to operate within the traditional aviation system, or not initially. Instead, the company has also been designing so-called ‘Droneports’ that the aircraft could operate to and from.
While development of international safety rules by global aviation body ICAO may be some years away, Rangelov points out that ICAO is only responsible for international flights, “and they are working hard on guidelines”.
He adds: “In the meantime, there are a lot of countries that have needs to meet, because they don’t have the roads that developed countries have. So, I think there is a lot of opportunity if we can find the right ears willing to listen.”
He says Amazon is doing a good job of telling people that they can have fast delivery at no cost, adding: “Given this environment, we have been asking ourselves: how do we create a ‘flying van’?”
Ideally, he would see the drones completing deliveries right up to and including the final mile, but he accepts that this is not likely in the short term in urban locations, because of the perceived risks.
“Therefore, for the time being, we think the final mile will be done on the ground. So we have been developing this drone to interconnect with that van.”
Hodge-podge of rules
De Reyes says regulation of drones around the world is currently a “hodge-podge” of different rules, with few regulators really knowing how to proceed. Indeed, regulators such as the FAA are looking to drone manufacturers and others for guidance. “I think at the moment it is going to be done on a case-by-cases basis,” he notes.
“I believe we will be able to carry cargo from one location to another in 2020,” De Reyes adds. “But we are looking at full FAA certification probably in 2023.”
In terms of autonomous flights, Matyushev says: “The first step will be semi-autonomous operations, with a controlling pilot. The vehicle will be making decisions, and the pilot will be guiding them. This will be in the next six months to three years.
“I think it is going to take another decade to get acceptance (for fully autonomous drones) from the FAA and other authorities. I think the development of autonomous road vehicles will help with that and will come first.”
Gadhia says his organisation’s test flights of the Flyox “have shown that we can operate drones autonomously”, but he expects initially to operate using a pilot-controlled model.
De Reyes adds: “I think the push will be for fully autonomous operations. But it will usually start with one pilot, one air vehicle, and then we can go towards one pilot controlling perhaps four vehicles. I think that is the way that it will go before we go to fully autonomous.” nnn