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Are Drones viable means to ferry cargo?

There is an appetite in industry to develop and utilize drone technology that can deliver cargo. Can sophisticated drones overtake freighters to transport air cargo? Have no pilot or crew on board, drones can make deliveries faster, limiting quite a few overheads. Experts deliberate.

Abigail Mathias

The demand for drones has continued to increase even during COVID. There are more than 70,000 active major construction projects in the Middle East countries, such as the United Arab Emirates, Saudi Arabia, Turkey, Israel, and Egypt.

The demand for drones in the construction sector for applications, such as 2D and 3D modeling and mapping, land surveying, progress monitoring, waste reduction, and job site surveillance, is increasing and is, thus, propelling the market growth in the Middle Eastern region.

According to the Mordor Intelligence report, the demand and implementation of drones has increased in various regions for applications, such as postal delivery and agriculture, particularly in Africa.

The agriculture sector in the continent is witnessing the highest demand for drones for soil scanning (nitrogen content monitoring, electrical conductivity monitoring), crop monitoring, pesticide spraying, pest, weed, and disease detection, fish population monitoring and other technical aspects.

But can drones take over the task of air cargo transportation?

Technological advancements such as hybrid propulsion in Vertical Take-off and Landing (VTOL) drones, which increases the loitering time, Augmented Reality (AR) technology for 2D and 3D Mapping, and Artificial Intelligence (AI) in crowd controlling, have propelled the growth of the drones’ market in countries, such as Israel and South Africa.

Having no pilot, crew or passengers on board, a drone offers users a chance to make deliveries swiftly and limiting quite a few overheads. Drone manufacturers are launching new drones to attract customers in the Middle East.

For instance, in August 2022, the dealer of DJI Enterprise in the Middle East—the Drone Centre officially announced the launch of two DJI Enterprise solutions in the region—the DJI M30 Series and DJI Zenmuse H20N. The drone market in the Middle East has huge growth opportunities in the coming years and will experience increased competition among manufacturers to tap into this market.

In February 2022, UVL Robotics launched the first delivery drone in the Middle East service of day-to-day parcel delivery based on drones. The payload of flying couriers is 6.6 pounds. Delivery drones can cover more than 25 miles. As of December 2021, Morocco and Israel were preparing to build two factories for unmanned aircraft in the North Africa state’s Al-Aoula region.

Martin Drew, Senior Vice President Global Sales & Cargo, Etihad Aviation Group, says, “Drones have become somewhat of a hot topic in recent years, with several companies announcing the development and trials of autonomous drones capable of transporting cargo.

The benefits of smaller, more nimble aircraft capable of carrying loads include making it easier to transport cargo to small, remote areas. However, despite the anticipated benefits, drones are not commonly used by air cargo carriers, with the new technology remaining largely untested.”

“We do not foresee a time when drones will replace cargo aircraft completely. Drones do not have the capacity to transport large volumes of cargo on a single aircraft, making economies of scale challenging to achieve.

Also, we anticipate significant barriers to entry for larger capacity unmanned aircraft as the ecosystem for the secure handling and air traffic management for crewless flights does not currently exist.

That said, there is an appetite in the industry to develop and utilize drone technology that can deliver cargo. In addition to offering quicker access to remote parts of the world, drones will potentially increase the speed at which customers can receive goods.

Drones offer great potential in the delivery of lifesaving medicines and vaccines, which currently depend on road feeder services for last-mile delivery. These benefits have placed drones firmly on the radar of many sectors, including e-commerce, healthcare, and engineering.

However, we still have a long way to go before drones offer a viable alternative to traditional cargo-carrying aircraft. There are still hurdles in terms of regulatory acceptance. To date, drones also face capacity limitations, since they are unable to carry large volumes. Market perception is also a challenge, with end-users unwilling to entrust their high-value and sensitive commodities to unmanned aircraft.”

Shankar Subramoniam, Executive Director, National Association of Freight and Logistics (NAFL) said, “The drone has lot of potential in logistics such as ship chandelling supply, oil field offshore supply, monitoring, surveillance, security controls, tourism, and healthcare support. Increasingly, they are being used for warehouse operations (inventory management and searching for lost goods), shuttling goods between distribution centers and last-mile delivery, often an expensive part of a trip.”

Mohamed Shawky, Co-Founder and CEO, GIS Drones explained, “For small objects such as deliveries from Amazon and medical supplies, drones are already helping in this field but before they can be mass-produced and introduced as a solution, we need to overcome some challenges. One of these is better AI technology for autonomous control.

To conclude, drones can only be a viable solution for short distances and extremely quick delivery of small goods.” His company was established in 2020 and aims to become the foremost drone services provider in the UAE and the Middle East, focused on Drone-Powered Solutions delivery.

Although his business is in developing drone technology, he believed, “Drones cannot replace large-scale cargo operations that carry a huge load or cargo over long distances, but for short-range and small deliveries, they are a faster and cheaper alternative. But for them to be a good and viable solution we need to work on perfecting a few steps before releasing them to the market.”

“Right now, drones are limited by their range, weight-lifting capacity, and multitasking. To increase their range and weight capacity, there are needs to be innovative breakthroughs in new energy-dense batteries that can deliver more power or last longer, whichever is needed. And currently, drones are being manufactured keeping a specific task in mind. If it is a surveying drone, it will have better cameras.

If it is needed for thermal analysis, it will have better thermal sensors but normal visual cameras. If it is needed for FPV analysis of tricky locations, it will be small and portable with a normal sensor payload. The innovative thing would be to come up with multipurpose drones that can handle any task with a slight change of sensor payload. And some examples of these are already available on the market but they can still be improved,” he said.

One thing unique about the drones being used in the UAE region is the FPV drones’ niche. First-person drones that allow beyond visual sight drone operations are not fully legal in other regions of the world.

But they are being tested in specific regions in the UAE and will be licensable and legally approved for drone operations during projects. That is one thing unique about the implementation of drones in this region.

Pradeep Luthria, CISM, Senior Partner and Chief Practitioner, Saiber Innovation Technologies said, “With the development of diesel drones such as the ‘Flyox’ that can carry cargo in tons, it is certainly possible for drones to reduce the dependence on aircraft. However, due to the limited range and varying capacity of small drones, they may not entirely take over air crafts when it comes to cargo transportation. Drones will potentially become popular for deliveries of small packages and small-load last-mile deliveries.”

Autonomous drones

“We believe that autonomous drones show real potential and will have a place in the future of air cargo. Etihad Cargo is exploring the utilisation of drones in collaboration with DRONAMICS, which is developing a long-range, remotely piloted, and fuel-efficient cargo aircraft capable of transporting 350 kg over 2,500 km. The transportation costs will be 50 per cent lower than traditional aircraft. The airplane will fly autonomously and can be monitored and managed remotely via satellite,” added Drew.

Simon Johnson, Aerospace Industry expert, Innovaud recently made an interesting presentation at the Abu Dhabi Aix Expo. Innovaud is a Swiss based company that has a long history of supporting innovation by startups, scale-ups, SMEs, and large-tech companies.

Discussing some of the drone innovations, Johnson further explained, “Long-range Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) authorizations and over time full certification are equivalent to manned aviation and with full airspace integration.

Swiss Dufour Aerospace is also working on a drone cargo version of their tilt-wing hybrid electric aircraft.” The aerospace expert believed drones cannot take over cargo operations, “In cases such as delivering medical samples to remote location, can drones come into use. Belly and volume cargo on busy (long distance) routes will be handled by manned aviation for a few more years.

Drones are becoming cheaper to operate, quieter and emit less carbon than traditional air cargo. They will also land or airdrop cargo in locations not reachable by manned aviation”, he added.

Luthria said, “As drones become increasingly in demand for small-load, last-mile delivery operations, the landscape of cargo transportation is bound to change. The agility and flexibility that drones bring to the T&L industry, along with the reduction in cost required for civil works, such as the need for long and properly paved runways, will allow produce to be transported with greater convenience and tighter adherence to time-bound norms.

Elaborating on some of the features that drones have, Johnson said, “Autonomous operations in case of temporary loss of communication link or positioning or navigation or surveillance systems (mission hold procedure). A parachute in case of a major failure (mission abort procedure).”

Oman Air Country Manager Shahzad Naqvi said, “Oman Air Cargo is always keen to explore and invest in new technologies that make logistics more efficient, cost-effective, and sustainable. While there is a lot of momentum building on drone technologies, I do not think they will reach the point where they can replace traditional air cargo soon. Their capacity to carry large volumes and ability to go long distances, not to mention the supporting infrastructure and regulatory frameworks, are still a long way off.”

Dina Awad, Freight Forwarder Manager, Milaha, Qatar Navigation affirmed, “I believe that some companies have already started testing drones and a lot of countries have started allowing for cargo trials, while msome more countries have their security concerns. Most businesses are using them, either for marketing or operations trials.”

“Some of the key features that drones bring to the table, besides removing the need for proper runways, is their ability to bring pinpoint accuracy with real-time track and trace on the status of operation. Drones utilizing low altitudes are increasingly being used in areas such as warehouses and in defined campuses.

The personalized approach to drone delivery is something that has lot of potential going forward. Drones are already being used in warfare. So, we should see more adoption of drones across other sectors,” said Luthra.

Awad said, “Efficiency and speed helps in reducing the carbon emission, and most countries mission by 2050 is to reduce emissions. With technology evolving at break-neck pace and regulators looking at drones as an alternative to accessing remote airports and regions and supporting the delivery of sensitive commodities in smaller quantities, drones may, in time, occupy a niche market in air cargo. We could see drones replacing road feeder services on short-haul routes, carrying smaller weights,” concluded Drew.


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