Cargo drones get heavy

posted on 16th June 2022
Cargo drones get heavy

Despite continuing regulatory and technical challenges, developers have continued to make good progress towards the launch of UAVs able to carry higher cargo payloads, as the interest from operators and their customers has also switched from small final-mile deliveries to higher-payload middle-mile opportunities, reports Will Waters

Cargo drone pioneers have continued to make good progress in the past 12 months towards the launch of unpiloted aerial vehicles (UAVs) able to carry higher cargo payloads, as the interest from developers and their customers has also switched from small final-mile deliveries to higher-payload middle-mile opportunities and capabilities.
Among the most advanced of these is the VoloDrone, the first cargo variant created by urban air mobility (UAM) firm Volocopter. Last October, it conducted the first public flight of a full-scale heavy-lift electric cargo drone, a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) aircraft designed to carry pallets weighing up to 200 kilogrammes over a 40-kilometre range.

VoloCity air taxi overlaps
The VoloDrone benefits from many design, safety and certification overlaps with the VoloCity passenger air taxi variant that Volocopter has been pioneering, a multi-rotor all-electric VTOL aircraft developed to meet the exacting aviation standards and requirements set by the European Aviation Safety Agency (EASA). Volocopter says it created the VoloDrone “to offer services to a slew of industries, and it will be deployed where classic transportation modes reach their limits”. Examples include the rapid delivery of urgent items within logistics, “from retail to spare parts deliveries”, or to “be quickly deployed to provide disaster relief, air rescue, or support humanitarian aid efforts”, and “shore-to-ship deliveries, transporting goods like spare parts”.
But to a large extent, the range of practical applications for cargo drones is still being explored, as the technical and regulatory challenges are progressively worked through and the unique capabilities and cost profiles of the various vehicles emerge and evolve. Indeed, several of the cargo drone developers are not only pioneering in terms of their ability to fly unpiloted, and in meeting the complex and still-evolving safety requirements for that, but also in some cases creating new aircraft concepts that are needing to be designed, tested, improved and certified. While some use more traditional fixed-wing aircraft or single-rotor helicopter designs, others – like those developed by Volocopter – are electric multi-rotor VTOL aircraft of a type never previously tested in real-world cargo or passenger flight situations.

Regular flight tests
The VoloDrone’s first flight actually took place in 2019 and since then, regular flight tests have been conducted at various airfields in Germany, with Volocopter subsequently working with logistics giant DB Schenker to explore and develop the VoloDrone’s integration into potential real-life logistics scenarios and configurations. The drone itself is 9.15 metres in diameter, 2.15 metres tall, and has a 600-kilogramme maximum take-off weight (MTOW). Future VoloDrone operations will be fully electric with autonomous beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) capabilities, Volocopter says.
In addition to the 3-minute test flight, Volocopter and DB Schenker also demonstrated VoloDrone’s integration into the logistics supply chain with an end-to-end cargo transport operation showing their progress together since DB Schenker became a strategic investor of Volocopter in early 2020. For the delivery simulation, the electric drone was equipped with a Euro-pallet sized load-box located between its landing gear, safely delivering the payload to a DB Schenker Cargo Bike to complete the entirely electric, multimodal last-mile delivery.

Significant milestone
The demonstration marks a significant milestone in the development of ‘heavy-lift’ cargo drones – ‘heavy-lift’ in the sense of being able to carry meaningful sized pieces of freight rather than just small parcels – and also their ability to operate in urban settings rather than remote areas. Although there are numerous examples of lightweight cargo drones capable of lifting small packages with payloads of up to 5kg, including some already in active service carrying niche products in remote areas, this is thought to be the first full-scale public demonstration of a cargo drone capable of lifting payloads greater than 20kg, especially in an urban setting.
The first public VoloDrone flight comes soon after Volocopter secured its first large-scale firm orders for its cargo and passenger variants. Volocopter and Aerofugia, a subsidiary of Geely Technology Group, last year finalised a joint venture to launch UAM vehicles in China, including an agreement to purchase 150 Volocopters. That JV includes an unspecified number of the VoloDrone cargo variant, Volocopter confirmed.

Island mail delivery
Another company with significant payload drones already up and running now, and a major customer, is Windracers. It has completed a series of successful trials for the UK’s Royal Mail in the last 18 months carrying mail and parcels weighing up to 100kg between the UK mainland and various remote and island communities, using its twin-engine, fixed-wing UAV.
And in May, Royal Mail unveiled its ambition to scale up its use of drone technology and create more than 50 new postal drone routes over the next three years, “subject to Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approval, and the on-going planned improvement in UAV economics”, as part of a new partnership with Windracers, supported by up to 200 of its drones. Longer term, Royal Mail’s ambition is “to deploy a fleet of more than 500 drones servicing all corners of the UK”.
The twin-engine UAV used in the trial has a wingspan of 10 metres and incorporates “a high-reliability autopilot system”. It can carry up to 100kg of mail and parcels in the drone’s 700-litre internal hold, and operate two daily return flights between the islands. Letters and parcels are then delivered by the local “postie”.
Stephen Wright, chairman at Windracers Group, says there has been growing interest from drone developers and their customers in higher-payload, middle-mile use cases: “The middle mile of supply and logistics, especially to remote locations, has long been overlooked by the industry and is ripe for innovation,” he notes.
“Urban delivery is complex from a safety and regulatory standpoint. It is also difficult to compete with existing options such as electric cargo bikes in terms of efficiency and sustainability.
“The middle mile is much easier to tackle from a regulatory standpoint; but there’s also a genuine problem here that needs solving. Delivering to remote or island communities has always been challenging and complicated, resulting in slow and infrequent deliveries that are expensive to operate profitably. Drones present an extremely compelling opportunity for improvement in terms of reliability, efficiency and sustainability.”

Dronamics developments
Fellow European developer Dronamics also has its sights set firmly on under-served or difficult-to-serve lanes, away from hub airports, where it believes its soon-to-launch Black Swan drone will have a significant advantage in offering rapid or same-day deliveries of shipments up to 350kg at a distance of up to 2,500km – in cases where an air charter would be uneconomic and surface transport too slow. It says the Black Swan can delivery “at up to 90% lower cost than any aircraft – enabling same-day shipping over very long distances for a variety of industries, from pharma to food, from e-commerce to spare parts”.
Dronamics has been building a network of ‘droneports’, including at more than 30 second-tier and third-tier airports in Europe, “allowing the Black Swan to provide the critical missing ‘middle mile’ in air freight”. It says other locations are also viable, as long as they have a 400-metre runway.
“Whether ferrying vital supplies between islands or delivering critical spare parts deep into a country, Dronamics will link towns and cities around the world with each other in a way simply never possible before,” the company says.

Maltese island opportunity
After last year attracting the support of major logistics customers include Hellmann and DHL, in May Dronamics become the first cargo drone company to obtain the European Union’s Light UAS Operator Certificate (LUC), from Malta’s Civil Aviation Authority. The LUC is recognised in all EU member states and allows Dronamics to self-authorise flight operations of its Black Swan aircraft across EU countries, including BVLOS operations.
Dronamics said the certification “provides significant business opportunities across the single market”, and Dronamics “plans to scale up its operations and run its first commercial flights out of Malta and Italy later this year, linking key hubs across the region”, with Malta as its European operations base.

Targeting e-commerce, pharma and spare parts shipments
Offering a same-day service, and set routes rather than ad hoc, Dronamics is targeting primarily e-commerce, pharmaceuticals and spare parts shipments, says CEO and founder Svilen Rangelov. He also sees a good use case in interlining with commercial airlines, where Dronamics can act as a feeder operator. For distances in excess of 400km, his company can offer a service that is more economical than road transport, he says, as well as faster.
The company says it can produce at least 100 aircraft in a year, but it plans to find regional manufacturing partners that can produce at least 1,000 drones per year, as demand expands.

US ambitions
Meanwhile, over in the US, where regulators have so far been more reluctant than their European counterparts to certify BVLOS operations, plans to develop significant-payload cargo drones continue to make progress.
California-based Natilus says it now has an order book of over US$6 billion and 440+ aircraft spread across the three products it is currently developing. These are a 3.8-tonne model aimed at feeder operations for express traffic, a 60-tonne aircraft to compete with the B767 freighter, and an aircraft with a cargo payload of 100 tonnes to ply transpacific trade routes. All three use a blended wing-body design to maximise capacity and its aerodynamic properties. The larger two models have gone through the conceptual design stage, but for now Natilus is concentrating on the smallest drone.
It has begun construction of the first Natilus 3.8T (N3.8T), and its first flight is scheduled for end of 2023, Natilus says. The 60-tonne model could follow about four years later.
In the last 12 months, the Natilus team “has increased substantially to almost 20 engineers” and transitioned from San Francisco to San Diego “to focus on first flight on the 85-ft wingspan prototype aircraft”.

Bigger is better
Lessons learned from the initial development, trials and use of cargo drones include that “the industry focuses as a whole on regulations for the smaller category of drones, <50kg, but the larger unmanned aircraft have already been proven in BVLOS and day-to-day airport operations. We think that the smaller drone market (<50kg) will still have a hard time developing, but the larger drones (1,000kg + maximum gross weight) have found themselves evolving really well. It is easier to commercialise something that is larger.”
Natilus believes its order book alone demonstrates that cargo drones can play a significant role in mainstream air cargo transport “alongside the large players”, not just for niche operations – for example in remote or inaccessible areas, for humanitarian or pharma deliveries, or for e-commerce middle-mile. But the company acknowledges “that it is still difficult for suppliers to believe in the future of cargo drones”, and to make the necessary investments in what still may seem to many like an uncertain market, noting: “Natilus is proud to be supported by top-tier suppliers, but we understand that it’s hard for some other companies.”
It sees no need to prepare any completely new ground infrastructure for cargo drones, at least for its own operations, noting: “We are a turnkey operation into existing infrastructure.”

More power
Another US drone developer with major customers lined up is Sabrewing, whose CEO Ed De Reyes also believes the future lies in larger drones. Developments in the last 12 months include “extracting over 50% more power” out of the prototype VTOL aircraft’s “ducted fan” turbo-electric drivetrain-powered engines, and reducing the noise by over 50%. Sabrewing is “preparing the aircraft for its official first flight”, which is due to take place this summer.
“The additional thrust means that our payload for the official first flight of the aircraft should beat the world record for any commercial VTOL UAV,” says De Reyes.
“Originally, we were focusing on a production aircraft that could lift 1 ton and fly 1,000 miles. As we designed and built the ducted fans, we designed a system that could easily lift a lot more. Our prototype is capable of lifting our goal weight and our production aircraft is capable of 5,400 pounds (2,450kg) and 1,000 nautical miles.”
This is consistent with the lessons learned from the initial development, trials and use of cargo drones, De Reyes believes.
“Even though some minor airlines have signed deals with competitors, those same airlines aren’t looking – in any realistic way – at carrying cargos that are less than 1,000 pounds (about 453 kilos). With the rising costs for labour, fuel, airport fees, etc., any load below 1,000 pounds is not economically viable for them. Our original assumptions regarding the market and our customer’s desire to carry the greatest loads possible is key to the long-term success of any cargo UAV manufacturer.”
He expects to see these aircraft in commercial use carrying payloads “as soon as the summer of 2023. We already have several companies who have purchased these aircraft throughout the world that intend to start carrying cargo as soon as 2023,” De Reyes explains.

US$600m order
Commitments include a US$600 million order from Arabian Development & Marketing Co. (ADMC) for 102 Sabrewing ‘Rhaegal-B’ cargo aircraft along with a five-year renewable representation agreement with ADMC “for Saudi Arabia, the GCC and the pan-African region”.
De Reyes expects the businesses of smaller-capacity drone manufacturers – especially those that are carrying payload that are less than 500 pounds (225kg) – will flounder in the next two years. “You’ll also see those companies who manufacture UAVs with 1,000 pounds and greater payload capacity take up the majority of the sales in this segment, with VTOLs being the largest share of that market,” he predicts.
He describes small-capacity UAVs as “niche” and “currently a novelty, but will be rendered obsolete altogether”, whereas heavier cargo drones will play a significant role in mainstream air cargo transport – not just for niche operations.
Indeed, De Reyes expects that over the next three to five years, the recent problems of supply chain bottlenecks will “shrink significantly with the introduction of heavy-lift cargo UAVs. You’ll also see less truck traffic to/from the cargo hubs because the heavy-lift cargo UAVs will be able to deliver tons of cargo to pin-point locations in single sorties, all at lower costs than traditional air cargo aircraft.”
Barriers to overcome
He says the biggest barrier that the cargo drone sector needs to overcome “is the funding barrier. Without the Federal government’s funding help, it will be a long road to implementation of cargo UAVs. Programmes like AFWERX were created for this purpose, but they don’t invest in Research and Development of aircraft.”
But he doesn’t expect any significant challenges for airports to accommodate the commercial use of cargo drones.
“Our aircraft uses existing infrastructure – so we do not require any preparations. Our customers aren’t really interested in what the aircraft can do in 5 or 10 years; they’re only interested in what we can deliver tomorrow or next year – so we have designed and built an aircraft that is ready to ‘plug-and-play’ immediately upon entering a cargo airline’s fleet. We can use all current facilities, airways and regulations without having to have the FAA create new rules or regulations that could take years to be approved.”