Drones: Rise of the machines

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As it flew through the air, the buzzing drone looked more like a gigantic insect, hang­ing in the summer breeze, than the future of airfreight. It made a beeline for its appointed destination, and then suddenly halted, hovering over a designated spot. A tether slowly extended, lowering the craft’s vital cargo – 24 medical pack­ages – gently to the ground.

This seemingly mundane display of already proven drone technology was actually historic. The flight was the first U.S. government-approved use of an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) delivering cargo. It took place in July in a remote area of Virginia’s Appalachian Mountains. The drone, manufactured by Australian startup Flirtey, traveled about two miles, making three trips back and forth from Lonesome Pine Airport near the town of Wise, to a temporary medical clinic, which was set up at the Wise County Fairgrounds. The event was an annual free clinic for folks who live in the isolated area.

Drones are already common sights in many parts of the world, perform­ing valuable tasks, such as monitoring crops, inspecting bridges and surveying damage resulting from natural disas­ters. Today’s drone technology allows a high level of autonomy. Using GPS sig­nals for navigation and wi-fi for commu­nication, some models require human operators to guide the vehicle manually by remote radio control, using on-board cameras that can act as digital eyes over several miles, depending on battery life. Other, more sophisticated vehicles can follow entirely pre-programmed takeoff, flight, delivery and landing routines without human intervention.

However, due to current U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regula­tions, drones in the United States must be operated by a human operator, who cannot let the vehicle leave the “line of sight,” meaning drones cannot yet be allowed to travel beyond the operator’s field of vision. The Flirtey test in Virginia was a one-time exception to this rule, which allowed the company to test the UAV’s capabilities to operate beyond this line of sight.

Flirtey’s drone, a small hexacopter weighing about 10 pounds, is one ex­ample of how drones may someday be put to use as delivery vehicles in hard-to-reach places – provided that regulations change to allow their use. Drone delivery advocates, such as Amazon and DHL, have said it is necessary to be able to operate drones beyond line-of-sight for them to reach their full po­tential as delivery vehicles. The FAA is working on guidelines for operation of drones, so they can be flown remotely, many miles away from the operator, but the agency said it could take an­other year to finalize the regulations.

Will the industry ever reach the point where forwarders can add UAVs to their arsenal of airfreight options for their customers?

“There are certainly many different interesting developments with drones and we are keeping a close eye on this. We have a team that deals with future topics and innovation,” said Sandro Hofer, head of corporate media rela­tions for logistics firm Panalpina. “For the delivery of some cargo, the use of self-driving cars may be the better option. The transport with drones can make sense, however. We see oppor­tunities, particularly when you have to deliver an urgent spare part to a re­mote place – for example, to an oil rig. Here, a production shut-down quickly gets very expensive.”

CEVA’s vice president of global com­munications, Kay Hart, acknowledged that drones are an interesting and evolving topic, but that regulatory is­sues need to be resolved. “The reality is that this issue is one of economics,” she said. “Drones will replace ground vehicles where both economies of scale and time compression offer cost-benefits – which improve the overall supply chain for transportation service providers and their customers.”

Hart said that because there are so many unknown factors that will determine the flight of drones, it’s still too early to speculate on what CEVA’s specific interests or intentions will be, but that the company would embrace any opportunity that would benefit its customers.