WCS 2017: Get ready for air cargo disruption on the Horizon

ABU DHABI, UAE — For most of the last 50 years, the symbol of a successful “future” has been the long-promised, never-realized flying car. While most of us have long ago given up dreams of seeing these hybrids take to the air in real life, that is exactly the catalyst that has driven entrepreneur Svilen Rangelov and his aeronautical brother, Konstantin, to develop the prototype of an unmanned drone that will soon be able to carry 350-kilogram cargo loads for 2,500 kilometers, at a much cheaper price than conventional aircraft.

Rangelov, the co-founder and CEO of unmanned aerial vehicle maker, Dronamics, spoke at yesterday’s first-ever “Horizon” forum on innovation that was open to all WCS delegates. Celine Hourcade, head of Cargo Transformation for IATA, led a lively discussion, fully engaging the audience and challenging them to share opinions and feedback.

Last year, Hourcade said, IATA held a Horizon session that was just reserved for chief information officers, but said it felt it lacked something. “Sometimes the best ideas don’t come just from IT specialists,” she said. “We need to modernize and reinvent ourselves. We need to open it all the way up to the rest of the delegates.”

Rangelov went on to describe the development of Dronamics’ first working prototype, called the “Black Swan,” which is about to have its first test flight. He said he discovered a need for the drone for poor people who live in remote communities, and who may have trouble finding access by road, but cannot afford modern air cargo rates.

Besides Rangelov, the Monday workshop featured presentations by Wojciech Soltysiak, the chief technology and innovation officer at CHAMP Cargosystems. Soltysiak warned attendees of an impending “Digital Tornado” of disruptive technologies that are coming to air cargo, not necessarily to take away everyone’s jobs, but to speed up the process, remove wasted effort and increase efficiency.

One highlight of his talk was a live demonstration of the use of already existing technology doing something no one thought of before – such as using Amazon’s Alexa voice recognition module to search for air cargo quotes. Within seconds of his request, Alexa had four possible cargo flights available immediately.

Thomas Pellegrin, of PriceWaterhouseCoopers, also spoke about the growing popularity of using blockchain as a simple tool to verify transactions, although he acknowledged that most people in air cargo (and in the Horizon workshop) had only a vague idea of what blockchain is. In a nutshell, blockchain, Pellegrin described, is a peer-to-peer network, used most often in the Bitcoin realm, that has no central authority but can record every aspect of a complex transaction and keep an ironclad record of every step taken — something that could eliminate much of added work seen in the supply chain, where each stakeholder must validate the paper trail of a given item being shipped.

One of the themes of the Horizon workshop was to never give up on an idea that has merit just because you’re short on funding or suffered some setbacks. As Rangelov said when he began Dronamics two and a half years go, he and his brother were clean-shaven, but they made a pact with each other to not shave until the first Dronamics prototype took flight. If you want to ask him about perseverance, you can’t miss him: He’s the one with the Bulgarian accent and a foot-long beard.

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