Lightweight cargo drone projects targeting the healthcare and e-commerce sectors have gained further momentum in the past 18 months, with large cargo drones facing bigger challenges getting off the ground, reports Ian Putzger
Despite the depressing effects of the Covid-19 pandemic, the development of drones – or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) – for cargo purposes has continued to gain momentum during the past year; and there has also been progress on the regulatory front, with important steps forward in both the US and the European Union at the end of 2020.
Not surprisingly, established operators of smaller drones that target sectors like the distribution of healthcare goods and vaccines have made the fastest progress – followed by the e-commerce sector, where the large players have continued to lead the charge – and some vaccine drone delivery projects have accelerated since the arrival of Covid-19.
The advance of remotely piloted aircraft that can haul larger payloads has been less robust, and some players have deviated from their original plans. But the official inauguration in April of a cargo drone airline by Dronamics – albeit without a functioning full-scale aircraft yet – and growing traction in the logistics industry, indicate progress towards the establishment of some commercial operations.
At the small end of the cargo drone market, Zipline has blazed a trail in the distribution of medicines and vaccines, starting with the establishment of a drone delivery system to move urgent life-saving medical products in Rwanda in late 2016. Using a fixed-wing design launched using a catapult-type system, the company covers the entire country from two distribution centres, each harbouring 20-30 drones and managing over 150 flights a day.
Zipline is now on its seventh-generation drone, which cruises at around 70 mph (112 kph) carrying a payload of up to 3.3 lbs (1.5 kg), with the cargo dropped to the delivery point via a parachute system.
In 2019, it also entered Ghana, where it is on course to double its footprint to eight distribution centres by the end of the year. This set-up made it a natural choice for the distribution of Covid-19 vaccines in the west African country. Starting these deliveries in March, Zipline says it plans to distribute some 2.5 million doses across Ghana in the first 12 months of the project on behalf of the Covax initiative.
Since 2019, the company has made more than 50,000 deliveries in Ghana, including more than 1 million vaccines, and claims its services can reach 12 million people – just over a third of the country’s total population. Zipline’s drones can deliver to hospitals, but also to temporary mobile clinics that will be used to distribute the Covid-19 vaccine in the country’s more remote areas.
After also entering the US market in 2020, delivering medical supplies and PPE in North Carolina last May, earlier this year Nigeria’s Kaduna state signed an agreement with the company for drone delivery of Covid-19 vaccines. Conor French, general counsel at Zipline, expects to enter into agreements with several African countries this year. By mid-May the company was making a delivery every four minutes across Africa.
Zipline has also made moves into the commercial arena outside the medical field. In March it signed its “first strategic operational partnership” with Toyota Tsusho, the trading arm of the Toyota Group. This will see Toyota Tsusho manage its own distribution centre powered by Zipline aircraft and logistics technology, French said.
Last September Zipline also announced an agreement with Walmart, under which it will make on-demand deliveries of select health and wellness products, with potential to expand to general merchandise. The drones will operate from a Walmart store and can service a 50-mile (80-km) radius, with trial deliveries initially take place near Walmart’s headquarters in Northwest Arkansas. According to French, flights are expected to commence later this year.
Canada drone growth
Meanwhile, after several years of operation with its Sparrow drone, which can carry payloads of 4.5 kg up to 30 kilometres, Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) is in the final testing stages of its larger Robin (11.3 kg payloads up to 60 km) and Condor (180 kg up to 200 km) models. CEO Michael Zahra expects this to be completed “within the next few months”.
The company is working on a model that will be ten times larger, but for the near term these three types will make up its fleet, he says. Pre-selling of and Robin is well under way, with interest from a number of prospects and customers, according to Zahra.
Initial customers for the Sparrow include DSV Air & Sea Canada, to deliver various types of small shipments, including healthcare related products, from a DroneSpot at DSV’s warehouse in Milton, Ontario to a DropSpot approximately 4km away for Reckitt Benckiser, the global producer of health, hygiene and home products.
DDC is also in the process of setting up a drone hub at Edmonton International Airport, which will be a hub-and-spoke operation to offsite locations.
“We can easily envision a hybrid network with all three models,” Zahra says, adding that DDC is also in talks with other airports.
With its range and payload capability, the is well suited to serve the energy sector and mining operations in remote locations. This could result in transfers of urgent parts from plane to drone at an airport like Edmonton.
In general, Zahra sees integration possibilities with airlines through their e-commerce activities, pointing to projections that 13% of e-commerce will be delivered by drone by 2025, rising to 40% by 2030.
Air Canada Cargo (ACC) would be an obvious candidate there. The airline launched a dedicated e-commerce arm earlier this year and has been a commercial channel for DDC for the past two years after the pair signed an agreement for ACC to market and sell DDC’s capacity across Canada.
Outside Canada, the drone company is pursing licensing agreements for its technology, which includes the drones as well as its proprietary Flyte software system. It has letters of intent with clients in Africa and India, Zahra says.
Black Swan event
Over in Europe, Bulgaria-based Dronamics on 1 April announced the official launch of a ‘cargo drone airline’ geared to manage same-day deliveries of cargo with its flagship Black Swan drone – an autonomous fixed-wing aircraft designed to carry loads up to 350 kg over distances up to 2,500 km. The company claims that it can operate at a cost that is 50% lower than other airlines.
Dronamics Airlines expects to start operations in Europe but plans to have subsidiaries in Ireland, Canada and Australia. But the launch of the airline does not mean Dronamics is ready to commence operations. Following extensive trials of smaller-scale models, the company is still in the final stage of production and assembly of its full-scale Black Swan and will be starting test flights as soon as the aircraft is ready. Certification is still about a year away, estimates COO Sergio Oliveira e Silva, and the company is currently engaged in drafting manuals and writing procedures to that end.
Commercial flight operations expected next year
But preparations for its first commercial flights, expected next year, are already in high gear. At the end of April, the company announced three new ‘droneport’ locations. The three German airports – Paderborn-Lippstadt, Rostock-Laage and Airport Weeze – bring the number of agreed droneports to 38 airports in 12 European countries. Other European droneport agreements have been signed with airports including Liège Airport, which serves as Alibaba’s European air hub, and Brescia Airport, the national hub for the Italian postal system.
These droneports, where drones are launched to cruising altitude and landed at the end of the remote-controlled flight, are so far mostly at second- and third-tier airports – often around an hour from a major airport. But other locations are also viable, as long as they have a 400-metre runway, Oliveira e Silva says.
The location of the flight control centre has not yet been determined, but initially this will be managed out of Bulgaria. Management intends to hire commercial pilots to operate its drones. According to Oliveira e Silva, the training and approval process takes about 3-4 weeks.
The drones will operate on pre-set routes. “We won’t do ad hoc,” he says.
Targeting e-commerce, pharma and spare parts shipments
Offering a same-day service, 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 400 km, his company can offer a service that is more economical than road transport, he says, as well as faster.
Oliveira e Silva says the company can turn out at least 100 aircraft in a year, but it plans to find regional manufacturing partners as it expands. “It makes no sense to build a drone in Sofia and then fly it to Australia,” he explains.
Rangelov says Dronamics is looking for regional partners that can produce at least 1,000 drones per year.
Sabrewing prepares for vertical take-off
Back in North America, Sabrewing has been developing aircraft with vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) capability.
The California-based company has worked on several models, but most of the recent focus has been on the Rhaegal model, an electric VTOL (eVTOL) aircraft with a cargo capacity of 2,450 kg and a range of 1,850 km. Compatible with airline cargo operations, the drone is designed to carry two LD-1 containers, four LD-2 containers or two LD-3 boxes. Sabrewing has also developed a larger version with twice the lift capacity.
The Rhaegal was unveiled in May 2020 at a US Air Force event. Apart from the basic features of the unit, the military is highly interested in the drone’s AI-based ‘detect and avoid’ technology to avert collisions and open the door to autonomous operations. The company is now pursuing a dual strategy of working on military applications that involve autonomous operation – it has obtained some funding from the US military – and commercial use with remote piloting.
Sabrewing is currently reported to be flight testing its first full-scale Rhaegal and may get clearance to operate this year, although even the drone’s smaller-scale prototype has the capability to fly more than 1,800 km carrying over 1,000 kilogrammes of cargo.
On the commercial side, Sabrewing last September signed an exclusive five-year representation agreement with Arabian Development & Marketing Co that covers Saudi Arabia as well as the Gulf Cooperation Countries and the pan-African region. This includes an order for 102 of the company’s larger Rhaegal-B model, as well as the establishment of assembly and MRO facilities throughout Saudi Arabia and Africa.
Elsewhere in tech-oriented California, arguably the most ambitious drone project in the heavy cargo arena comes from Natilus, which is working on a drone with a cargo payload of 100 tonnes to ply transpacific trade routes. This is one of three models the company is working on, alongside a 60-tonne aircraft to compete with the B767 freighter and a 3.8-tonne model aimed at feeder operations for express traffic.
The larger two models have gone through the conceptual design stage, but for now Natilus is concentrating on the smallest drone, which should be ready for flights in about two years, according to CEO Aleksey Matyushev. He reckons that the 60-tonne model will follow about four years later.
Originally the company had envisaged an amphibian operation, where the drones would be loaded at a port, towed out to sea for launch and land near the destination port, but this concept has been abandoned. Instead, the drones are now designed to serve airports, just like the commercial aircraft they are competing or interlining with, and will use the same ULDs and ground handling equipment, Matyushev says.
Unlike most other drone players, Natilus has no ambition to operate its drones itself. “We are exploring some ACMI possibilities, but the business model is more like Boeing and Airbus. We design, build and sell aircraft,” Matyushev says.
Back in Europe, German drone start-up Wingcopter has been making airborne waves since its launch in 2019. Like the Sabrewing Rhaegal, its design combines an eVTOL capability with a tilt-rotor mechanism and fixed-wing aircraft body, although Wingcopter’s developments so far have focused on payloads of up to 6kg – with the plan to deliver small shipments of medical and health supplies, e-commerce goods, and food.
Its initial model, the Wingcopter 178 Heavy Lift, provides both one- and two-way delivery, covering distances of up to 120 kilometres and payloads of up to 6kg, which can be accurately lowered and raised via a winch mechanism, or land at the point of destination and return to its origin with a new payload. And Wingcopter in April also unveiled a new variation – the Wingcopter 198, “the world’s first triple-drop delivery drone”.
Since initially attracting a seven-digit Euro financing package and launching flights in 2019, Wingcopter raised a further $22 million in funding this year. And in mid-April, All Nippon Airways’ parent ANA Holdings unveiled Wingcopter as its partner in a drone delivery plan to serve rural Japan and remote areas. Set to start next year with a commercial service to carry medical goods and daily necessities to remote Japanese islands, the choice of Wingcopter was not a huge surprise as the pair it had already collaborated in the past two years on some trials.
Certain other cargo drone operations that appeared to be making rapid progress in the last few years have gone quiet more recently, with some indications that the projects have switched from commercial to military uses or run into technical or regulatory difficulties.
For example, Indonesian airline Garuda in 2019 announced plans to purchase 100 cargo drones within five years – to deliver freight with payloads of up to 2.2 tonnes from 30 logistics centres to the archipelago’s 18,000 islands – using UAVs from China’s Beihang UAS Technology. But it is unclear whether this project has yet got off the ground.
And plans by Astral Aerial Solutions to set up a drone operation in East Africa appear to have slowed since it conducted some successful test flights in 2019 using the Flyox cargo drone, designed by Spain’s Singular Aircraft to carry a cargo payload of almost 2 tonnes over a range of up to 1,200 km. But Astral has recently announced partnerships with Wingcopter and Yamaha covering the operation of smaller drones.
In the last five years there has been tremendous progress in trials and even real-world operations of cargo UAVs carrying small shipments – especially of medical products in remote areas – and some of these developments have accelerated further since the start of the pandemic. Although many of the heavy cargo drone projects have gone more slowly than originally expected, there is a continuing momentum to move beyond lightweight drones and trials of small prototypes towards meaningful commercial cargo drone operations. But it seems unlikely that cargo airlines, nor the stakeholders that support them, need to worry any time soon about drones taking over their market. For the near term, drones seem more a potential solution for the final mile.