“Supply Chain Today” attended an Air Cargo show earlier this year where the conference kicked off with pictures of ‘Curiosity Rover’ on Mars. Launched out of its NASA spaceship, the gangly-legged robot bumped around the arid surface and sent us our first photographs of the red planet. Five years later, ‘Curiosity’ is still on Mars, still taking self portraits (you can’t escape the selfie) and currently collecting data on Mount Sharp.
If space is the outer limit and ‘Curiosity’ is still exploring, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) must have a long future on Earth.
But reputation may be a problem. Drones and UAVs have been used for combat and are associated with damage, injury and loss of life. The very opposite of what they are starting to do in Africa – deliver aid and critical medical supplies.
Then there’s a hybrid airship, due to deliver crew and equipment to a Northern Canadian mine in 2019. Financing is a challenge, prototypes are still in development, but the direction is clear: the skies are the new highways and the opportunities are here.
What’s the difference between a drone and a UAV? Technically UAVs can be piloted from the ground while a drone follows a pre-programmed flight path.
A drone boom in Africa?
Sanjeev Gadhia is the founder and CEO of Astral Aviation. His company recently established a drone division in Rwanda and Kenya, mainly with the aim of providing relief. “Rwanda and Ghana have drone regulations in place, and approval for regulations in Kenya is expected shortly. A drone port in northern Kenya is planned with others on the way,” he advises.
Drones will be able to carry a payload of up to 2 000kg. Like mobile connectivity, Africa may become a forerunner in drone delivery. Many areas are inaccessible with poor or non-existent infrastructure, an ideal environment for UAV growth.
The focus for Svilen Rangelov, co-founder of Dronamics, is on e-commerce cargo up to 350kg that needs to travel a maximum distance of 2 500 km, including last mile delivery.
A prototype is in development.
“Our focus is on e-commerce and we plan to work with domestic airlines to create a product for e-commerce companies.”
Svilen points out that regulations mean you cannot have drones four to seven kilometres from any airport, so distribution points have to be outsourced and a logistics area set up some distance away. If you are using a drone to deliver goods, is there a risk of theft? “They will fly quite high,” Svilen observes wryly.
UAV delivery should result in significant delivery cost reductions, but development costs are high and investments not easy to come by. Svilen shares that his company has relied on venture capital to date, so funding is a challenge.
“We’re still developing our technology. After we complete our prototype, we will start on mass production and make unmanned delivery vehicles economically efficient.”
The demand for delivery and the method of delivery is available. What needs to happen for drone delivery to really take off?
Accurate and shared data is key
“If you are using drones to deliver a package you need a lot of information,” says Ariaen Zimmerman, executive director at Cargo IQ. ”For example, the receiver needs to know the time and place of delivery. The whole planning cycle is reliant on accurate information.”
RFID may be the game changer required, he points out. Data communicating labels may be able to tell suppliers, shippers and customers which package is where at any point, not just when a container or box leaves and when it is scheduled to arrive. “Quite literally labels that talk to each other,” says Ariaen.
Sometimes in Africa there may be a lack of physical addresses but given the high use of mobile phones on the continent, it should be quite easy to pinpoint a location.
Moving the big stuff
Across the ocean, the Hybrid Airship from Hybrid Enterprises LLC is set to make its mark, according to Brian Bauer, chief commercial officer.
The Lockheed Martin airship will carry crew (19) and cargo (21 tonnes) into remote areas previously inaccessible by air travel. At best, several trips with a helicopter suspending cargo from a cable was used previously to deliver the goods. The airship uses helium to generate lift, and has a low fuel burn and low carbon emissions. A 5 000 gallon fuel tank is built in.
In production, with a scheduled delivery date of 2019, its first trip will be to a mine in Northern Canada. The airship doesn’t need a landing strip, just an open field, making its multi-use of cargo and crew ideal for mining and construction operations.
Primarily designed to carry cargo, it is slower than an aeroplane. The cargo bay is 3m x 3m x 18m, with roll-on and roll-off loading. Maximum cruise speed is 60 knots per hour.
In five to ten years, Brian believes the airship will be rolled out and used to move international cargo. “From Central China to the US, we can move cargo in four days, which competes with sea freight, at a good price which will change the dynamics of the industry going forward.”