Autonomous freight drones: A revolution in Air Cargo?
In the past decade autonomous drones have been subject to a huge amount of media attention, a large percentage of which has been decidedly controversial. As a result, the first thing many people think of when they hear the word ‘drone’ is their combative role in military operations.
In recent times however, vast improvements in drone technology in the civilian space have opened a world far removed from the likes of high altitude reconnaissance missions.
Drone use by everyday society has increased tenfold in recent times, with near military grade equipment now available to the average consumer for under $1500. Modern drones have evolved to provide an outstanding platform for aerial photography and videography, making what was previously an expensive process accessible to both professionals and hobbyists.
Drones in Air Cargo
What about drones and the world of air transport? It’s a concept that is has rapidly gathered momentum in the last few years. Last month for example, several unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV’s) were deployed in the Dominican Republic. The UAV’s, electrically powered quad-rotors capable of carrying two kilogrammes up to 20 kilometres, were deployed by Matternet. The company claims the drones will form a small network between medical clinics on the island, delivering medicines and other high value, time sensitive goods. Similar trials have been conducted in various locations worldwide.
Amazon also made headlines in December last year when they demonstrated their testing of Prime Air, an automated drone delivery service. The idea is that inner city deliveries could be made autonomously, in a very short time frame.
Whilst so far drone testing has been limited to relatively small payloads, it seems likely that this will change as UAV technology is on a continual development curve, with constant improvements in flight time, range and payload. Several in-service military drones are already capable of lifting up to one tonne, so larger payloads are sure to be accessible to civilian UAV’s as they are developed with this specifically in mind.
It’s clear that UAV’s could have a huge impact on the logistics and air cargo industry as we know it. They have the potential to provide access to remote areas where road and air infrastructure either doesn’t exist, or is unusable due to weather conditions or natural disasters. They could also provide a viable option in dangerous areas, such a conflict zones, where human operators may have traditionally been at risk. In contrast, the opportunities for drone deliveries in large cities with problematic ground transport are equally immense.
When you combine this with their inexpensive and environmentally friendly running costs, the enormous potential for the use of UAV’s in air cargo charter operations is undeniably apparent.
Will anything change?
Could these developments ever see individuals or businesses owning and utilising freight drones directly for their logistical needs? Is the use of autonomous freight drones likely to adversely affect traditional logistics, freight forwarding, charter and on-board courier providers?
Well, the reality of successfully implementing drone infrastructure in a logistics sense brings its own complications. The UAV’s will need to operate in a way that doesn’t conflict with existing air traffic, operations and regulations. In the event that high numbers of drones are in regular service, they will require central, likely governmental, control and organisation by some form of national or regional hub, be that automated, manned or both.
In addition, their size and usual operating altitude makes border lines and airspaces difficult to enforce, so operators will need to demonstrate that their drones are not being used for illegal activities. Finally, they will need to ensure and demonstrate that the drones are safe from remote hijacking by outside individuals.
Whilst the actual drones are cheap to purchase and operate individually, the inherent infrastructure that their commercial use will require carries substantial investment and regulation.
That said, what freight drones have to offer the world of logistics is sure to outweigh the hurdles they must face to operate on a commercial basis. In the USA, the Federal Aviation Administration has been directed to develop regulations for the licencing and use of commercial drones by 2015, with aviation authorities around the world following suit.
However it’s likely that, like traditional air transport, commercial drone use will never be as simple or inexpensive as many might hope. They will also cater for a very specific space within the air cargo market, determined entirely by payload. It’s unlikely that in the foreseeable future, an unmanned aerial vehicle will be able to match up to the larger payloads of traditional cargo aircraft like the Ilyushin 76 freighter.
Whilst no doubt possessing the potential to bring an unprecedented amount of change to the industry, it’s likely that UAV’s will become another tool that experts in air cargo charter will be able to utilise in the future.
Header image courtesy of Amazon.com Inc