Flying cargo, sans pilot

  • September 16, 2014

When designing cargo drones and planes, we would do well to look to the pigeon.

The pigeon is nature’s perfect autonomous flying vehicle, says Adrian de Graaff, owner of AD Quenta aviation consulting company in the Netherlands.

“The pigeon is an amazing animal,” he says. “It knows how to find its way. It knows how to avoid hazards. And it has a long endurance and good carrying capabilities, 20 percent of its own weight and so on. So it’s an interesting animal. And why can’t we make airplanes behave like pigeons?”

Air Cargo World recently spoke with people around the world who are endeavoring to do just that.



Many people in Africa use a donkey to carry goods. Now, there is a movement to add wings.

That’s where the name came from for the Flying Donkey Challenge (FDC), a series of sub-challenges taking place in Africa daring engineers, entrepreneurs and logistics professionals to make cargo delivery by drone a reality. FDC does not provide new technology; it is a facilitator of “getting the best people around the table,” says Simon Johnson, co-founder and a director of FDC.

Africa is an enormous continent with a fast-growing population and economy, but it lacks transportation infrastructure, Johnson says. FDC’s goal is to have a drone that can carry 20 kilograms (44 pounds) of cargo for a distance of 50 kilometers (31 miles), all in under an hour.

“We feel strongly that this is a great opportunity for Africa to actually create an industry,” Johnson says. “We’re going to have drones flying about in our skies eventually. It’s a question of time and it’s for the next generation, which is going to be much more open to new technology.”

He says goods transported by drone could include vaccines and spare parts for mining operations. E-commerce will be a big driver of drones’ cargo.

Flying Donkey Challenge is a series of sub-challenges in Africa daring engineers, entrepreneurs and logistics professionals to make cargo delivery by drone a reality.

IJS Global, a forwarder specializing in health care and relief, participated in FDC’s business plan competition. The Amsterdam-based forwarder wants to use drones to transport temperature-controlled health care products, pharmaceuticals and vaccines in Africa.

“It would be a perfect way of actually getting medication to everybody, meaning even in very remote and hard-to-get-to places,” Naomi Attali-Landman, director commercial development at IJS, says. “A lot of money has been put into research and development of drugs and vaccines, but often it’s that last mile that makes it hard to get that product to the final customer, as in the patient, in these areas. So wouldn’t it be great to come up with a solution that would exist in doing so, providing that medication to all?”

IJS is dealing with the application of drones, not the engineering side. Its plan is to use drones from the main airports in some African countries, flying them to remote places.

These drone hubs will drive employment, Johnson says.

“The hubs will create opportunities for not only e-commerce but also people who will be managing warehousing, fixing, maintaining, whatever the flying donkeys in the same way you have a lot of activity around a bus station or rail station or an airport,” he says. “It’s a magnet of activity, and it creates the opportunities.”

For IJS’s health care plan to work, engineers would need to develop a drone that can transport temperature-controlled goods – flying fridges, says Eelco de Jong, managing director of Antaris Solutions, a global provider of cold chain management services. IJS worked with Antaris on the FDC business plan.

Matternet, a start-up company founded in 2011 in Silicon Valley, studies the applications for cargo drones in remote places around the world. The company is working on a network of autonomous drones that can move goods of under five pounds (2.3 kilograms) over short distances of 10-20 kilometers (6.2-12.4 miles), says Paola Santana, Matternet chief regulatory and strategy officer and co-founder.

Santana claims these lightweight payloads cover 70-80 percent of goods sold by companies such as Amazon.

Matternet did its first trials in the Dominican Republic and Haiti, delivering medicine and chocolates by drone. The company’s main goal is to deploy small networks of drones in countries lacking infrastructure.

“This is where we have started to implement Matternet because we think the impact is far bigger, not only because the regulatory barriers are lower but because they need these more, and there are no other alternatives,” Santana says.

Matternet’s activities include connecting rural clinics with hospital labs, delivering medical diagnostics, critical supplies and vaccines.

Johnson of FDC says drones need to be able to travel a long distance in order to prove viable in Africa. Flying a short distance makes little sense because drones aren’t required for that – just a child who wants to make some extra money, he says.

Oliver Evans, chief cargo officer at Swiss WorldCargo, sees drones as the future. The airline is providing logistical and other support to FDC.

“We believe that the world around us is changing very, very rapidly, and specifically disruptive new technologies are being developed,” Evans says. “Although it isn’t always clear where they are heading, it is very clear that they will become part of the reality of tomorrow. As a business which is very much focused on sustainability and the long-term future, we believe that we have to get to grips with these technologies and explore them and find out how they might impact the industry.”

Evans says the unmanned aspect of drones would reduce costs and open markets in more remote parts of the world.

“Many parts of the world cannot easily facilitate the supply chain by collecting or delivering parcels coming from anywhere in the world because there is a lack of road infrastructure, or the roads get washed away during the yearly wet season, or they’re congested,” he says.

As people in these parts of the globe gain access to smartphones and are able to start small businesses, they will also need access to the supply chain. Evans says this is where drones will prove valuable.

In rural places, drones may also be more viable than roads, which are capital-intensive and negatively affect the environment, Johnson says. Matternet says roads are also not flexible.

“A lot of ground infrastructure doesn’t solve the problem of mobility in the world because once you build a road, you have to maintain that road forever and you cannot take it back,” Santana says. “But as humans, we are not like that. We move a lot.”

In the U.S., University of Cincinnati Professor Kelly Cohen runs a lab of engineering students who work on implementing drones for package delivery in the U.S. About a dozen people from the university, including students, work in conjunction to build a UAV with Amp Electric Vehicles, a company that converts cars to electric vehicles.

The vision is for a truck to drive drones to a location, and have those drones take multiple packages within a neighborhood for the final mile, says Paul Orkwis, University of Cincinnati department head of aerospace engineering and engineering mechanics.

University of Cincinnati engineering students work on implementing drones for package delivery in the U.S.

In addition to engineering students, the drone project also uses students majoring in in business, history and public policy, Orkwis says.

“The engineering aspect is challenging and interesting, but there are other aspects that you have to be able to consider,” he says.

That is the aspect that interests Swiss WorldCargo. Someday, the airline will get in the business of drone transport, though right now, it is still a start-up industry in a commercial sense, Evans says. began testing delivery drones last year, and Google announced at the end of August that it is developing a delivery drone system.

In the meantime, Swiss WorldCargo is establishing contacts and acquiring knowledge in preparation to develop a business case for drones.

“We’re having fun doing it, but we intend for this to be part of a profitable air supply chain,” Evans says. “This is a threat to those that don’t adapt and evolve and an opportunity for those who do, so we’re very firmly determined to be amongst the latter.”


Autonomous cargo planes

Drones may be just the beginning for unmanned cargo flight. People like de Graaff are looking at planes.

An aviation consultant, de Graaff developed CargoMap along with Lufthansa, KLM and DHL on behalf of the European Commission. Through CargoMap, he looked at the possible future of freighters.

“The air cargo market is not in the best possible situation it could be in, so we thought maybe future different types of airplanes might serve the market better in competition with ships and belly freight and so on,” de Graaff says.

In 2011, Hans Heerkens, assistant professor at University of Twente in Enschede, Netherlands, founded the Platform for Unmanned Cargo Aircraft. PUCA is a group that studies applications for unmanned cargo aircraft. Its members include KLM.

The argument for unmanned aircraft is similar to the one for small drones. Heerkens, PUCA’s chairman, says unmanned aircraft could connect communities of under 100,000 people.

“They’re not connected to a sophisticated transport infrastructure – for example because they are in developing countries, roads are often not very good and sometimes they’re inaccessible during certain seasons, or train transport you will have only when there are large trains of cargo or passengers to be transported,” he says. “You don’t have a train where there’s only a few tonnes of freight per day.”

For example, China has three truly international airports, but more than 60 cities with 500,000-plus people, he says. Some of these cities are disconnected from worldwide infrastructure.

“Unmanned cargo aircraft should make it possible to transport relatively small cargo loads in an economic way,” Heerkens says. “Normally, you’re thinking about 747s and that kind of plane, or belly freight in passenger planes, but that’s all 10, 20, 30 or 120 tonnes. For many communities, that’s way too much cargo to be transported. So unmanned cargo aircraft can be relatively small and still economically viable, and they can connect many places on earth with their markets or their suppliers.”

The lines on this map of Africa represent small networks, connecting hubs all over the continent. Matternet can only cover short distances, but once it has set-up those small networks connecting local markets with communities, the company hopes to start connecting small communities with each other.

Unpiloted cargo planes would save on more than the cost of a crew, de Graaff says. Without pilots, there is no need for a heavy pressurized cabin, so the aircraft can be designed to weigh less, saving on fuel costs.

A safe pressurized cabin must be cylindrical, but if the cabin is unpressurized, it can be designed into fuel-saving shapes, Heerkens says. Also, if the plane is smaller, it can land on smaller runways.

And the plane does not need to return to a home base, so deployment becomes more flexible, he says.

Heerkens says development of autonomous cargo aircraft is a good first step before passenger aircraft.

“In a way, automating air transport is easier than automating, for example, road transport because in the air, you don’t have trees, you don’t have small children crossing the street, you don’t have let’s say the different kinds of streets,” he says. “Unmanned actually fits very well with aviation.”


Challenges to unmanned flight

One of the main hurdles cited by the industry to a sky full of cargo drones and planes is lack of legislation.

Johnson says drones will have a wide range of users, not just cargo companies but also farmers, journalists and the military. The government must treat these various usages for drones differently, he says.

“It’s not clear the aviation authorities should be the only authority to regulate drones,” Johnson says. “The reason I say that is the drones, which weigh a few hundred grams to as big as a manned aircraft, are a bit like a highway. We have highways provided by the state and then we have different classes of users. You can have pedestrians walking on the street, you can have bicycles, you can have a motorbike, you can have a private car, you can have a truck, you can have public transportation. And all these different users have to obey different rules. You don’t need a license to be able to ride a bicycle.”

Santana says Matternet’s strategy is to create drone networks in rural, transportation-starved countries because regulation against unmanned flight doesn’t exist. By the time the U.S. is ready to open the skies, Matternet will have the flight time and experience to expand there, she says.

De Graaff says regulations for unmanned planes do not exist yet.

“Regulation is not there. We see the whole story with privately-owned UAS [unmanned aircraft systems], the small drones. Everyone has one, and no one is allowed to fly with them. Regulation is lagging behind technical development,” he says. “In the U.S., I think the FAA is more active in this sense than Europe. In Europe, they sit and wait around until new technical development comes along and then they go to catch it. So it takes four years before you have it certified.”

Matternet is working on autonomous drones, but it has run into challenges. Santana says sensors exist to tell robots where they are flying, at what speed, the weather and other factors. But sometimes, these sensors are too large for drones, are not accurate or are slow to send data.

Santana says one of the reasons Western countries have fuzzy regulation regarding drones is because no one has been able to prove the reliability of the technology – “that you will give the same command to a drone 100 times, and the 100 times, the drone will execute the exact same command.”

Santana says another hurdle is the drones’ capacity to sense an unforeseeable object blocking its way. Orkwis of the University of Cincinatti says drones still need to gain the ability to reliably account for wind and fly between buildings.

Heerkens says the basic technologies for unmanned planes exist.

“What is missing is integrating the technologies into an aircraft,” he says. “What is also missing is the market information and the business model to know how exactly you should operate an unmanned cargo aircraft. Which markets are the most profitable? Are shippers ready to use these unmanned cargo aircraft?”

Experience with operating unmanned cargo planes, especially in the same airspace as manned aircraft, is also lacking.

Heerkens forecasts that the first markets for autonomous planes may be between isolated communities, and then the integrators may trade in their manned aircraft for unmanned.

Another obstacle for unmanned cargo flight goes beyond engineering or law; it’s psychology.

Orkwis says drones need to gain acceptance in people’s minds.

“We want to get away from the idea that drones are there to spy on people and drop missiles on terrorists. I mean, it’s a job that they do, but there’s also are the good that can be done from them too. It’s something that has to come across,” Orkwis says. “When people see pizza getting delivered or something at some point, I think maybe they’ll appreciate it a little bit more what’s possible.”

(In 2013, Domino’s Pizza in the UK tested delivering pizza via drone.)

De Graaff also thinks public opinion will eventually embrace unmanned cargo planes.

“I think that the citizens will adapt very quickly because they already get used to driverless driving, like the Google car that’s just been announced and so on,” he says. “People will get accustomed to it quite quickly, so it’s not my major concern. My major concern is that the technology has to be safe and secure, and that’s something we have not achieved yet.”

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