XM2 has developed drones specifically for the transport industry. While initially the industry underestimated their utility, unmanned aerial vehicles are starting to be used in a wide spectrum of transport activities, from e-commerce package delivery, to transport of medicines, to fleet management and spare-parts delivery and even to same-day food delivery. Drones are certain to become an integral part of the transport industry very soon, offering both a method of delivery and services accompanying transport. The industry will turn to drones for their speed, accessibility and low operating costs compared with other forms of transport that require human labour.
Within the e-commerce business, time of delivery is paramount when choosing a carrier. Drones enable fast delivery to a specific, predefined point, without much human action required. The convenience of sending packages to a client’s doorstep will create an improved customer experience. Such concepts have already gained the attention of the largest players, such as Amazon and Google, who are in the testing phase for such solutions. Amazon has been running Amazon Prime Air, which seeks to automate last-mile delivery of packages using small drones, able to reach a destination in 30 minutes whilst carrying a small parcel. Sending a 2-kg package within a 10 km radius In the US by ground transport costs Amazon $2 to $8, compared with just 10 cents using a drone. Google is also running a drone testing programme, Project Wing. The purpose is also last-mile delivery of goods, but the vehicle’s construction is different from Amazon’s. Google’s drone is called a “tail sitter”: Its take-off is vertical, then it moves into a horizontal position, which allows greater maneuverability and speed. Both established corporations and garage-based start-ups, and all kinds of companies in between, are involved in finding optimal ways of using drones in transport
As a matter of fact, some logistics companies have actually put drones to real work. Swiss Post has been testing parcel deliveries by UAV since July 2015. The drones fly autonomously, following previously defined paths drawn up by cloud software developed by Matternet (a US start-up), delivering payloads of up to 1 kilogram.4Last September, Posti, the Finnish national postal company, also tested delivery by drone for the first time in Europe in an inhabited urban environment. The drone flew 4 kilometres in Helsinki, from the mainland to the island of Suomenlinna, carrying a 3 kg parcel.5
As drones can quickly deliver packages to hard-to-reach areas, and offer flexibility of delivery points, other postal operators are following in Swiss Post and Posti’s footsteps in testing drone technology
In the area of goods delivery, another concept is also gaining popularity: delivery of spare parts. Maersk, which operates a large fleet of tankers, currently uses barges to deliver spare parts to its workers. As this process is expensive, the company has been searching for other options, and has also conducted drone delivery tests. Based on positive results, Maersk expects to be able to save $3,000 to $9,000 per ship annually using UAV technology.
Another application for drones is in medical logistics. The two foremost studies in the field concern drug transport and using drones as flying defibrillators.
Last July, Flirtey (a US drone delivery start-up), NASA and Virginia Tech received special FAA approval to perform the first official drone delivery of medication in the United States. The vehicle carried medications from an airport to a nearby health clinic in a three-minute flight. Delivering medical supplies in a remote rural area is the most likely application for drones in transport, because the need is high and the risk is low. Drones, unlike cars or motorcycles, are not subject to traffic delays, so samples can reach health- care workers much faster, making it easier to maintain ideal storage conditions.
Another potential medical application for drones is their use as flying defibrillators. A drone can be summoned by a patient with heart attack symptoms; the device can reach the patient, travelling at speeds of 100 km/h, locate and identify him or her and then perform an automatic defibrillation. By decreasing the time between identifying the first symptoms of a heart attack and the defibrillation drone’s rapid response, the survival rate can increase from 8% to 80%.
One of the most promising uses of drones in transport may be food delivery. Providing products such as frozen food, ready-to-eat dishes or even daily groceries from large chains may become be the next big thing in the food and restaurant industries. At first drones will be used to deliver such products to remote, difficult-to-access places that depend on external food supplies, such as oil rigs, research stations and isolated islands. Once proper regulations have been established, drones may perform the same tasks in residential areas, decreasing delivery times and increasing the efficiency of the entire transport value chain.
Until now, helicopters have distinguished themselves from airplanes by their flight flexibility. Drones not only provide the same opportunities, but have the advantage of being smaller and eliminating the risk of losing a human operator. Another big advantage is their price, and therefore their extremely high availability. Thus, it is reasonable to forecast that drones will decrease the need for helicopters, and
be able to conduct operations where the use of helicopters was too expensive or dangerous. On the other hand, if the two sectors merge, new opportunities may arise.
In the future, we may expect that airlines will start to deliver drone transportation services to their clients. This comes as no surprise, since airlines and drones are very much alike. Firstly, they both operate aerial vehicles that face similar levels of risk, a level that is clearly acceptable to the airlines. Furthermore, airlines already have experience and know-how in logistics, which gives them a natural competitive advantage in adopting drones in their service lines and diversifying their businesses. Since flying drones requires skill, and airlines already have their own training programmes to develop these skills, they can use their facilities to train future drone pilots, or even build their own drone crews.