Friday, November 20, 2020

Is the Future for Drone Freight Delivery Low Tech Rather Than High Tech?

Amazon Cuts Technology Staff Whilst Chinese Group Goes with Biplanes!
Shipping News Feature

US – CHINA – Despite delivery drones having been a regular feature in logistics industry publications for at least the last decade, they have still have not met the theorised potential that was so optimistically promised. However, perhaps a development in China points the way for integrating the technology into the supply chain gradually, and with little of the hype with which some Western companies have so enthusiastically promoted them.

A classic example of this over ambition came from Amazon. Since 2013 the company has been attempting, with much positive PR, to field drones capable of delivering packages direct to the customer. This effort has been beset with issues, primarily regulatory, drones buzzing about urban skies have unsurprisingly been the source of multiple problems already, without the safety issue involved of such delivery devices having to interact with the general public.

Now the company’s plans have experienced another setback. According to the Financial Times, Amazon is laying off dozens of R&D and manufacturing staff working on its delivery drone service Amazon Prime Air. Instead the company is reported to have reached tentative deals with Spain’s Aernnova Aerospace and Austria’s FACC Aerospace to manufacture parts of its delivery drone program.

Though this does not spell the end of the internet giant’s unmanned aspirations it certainly seems to be a setback, with one insider telling the FT that Amazon’s drone deliveries were still ‘years away’.

Of course, a major issue is the area of focus that Amazon (and many other Western logistics companies) have aimed to place drones in, the ‘final mile’ category. Admittedly, the cost saving potential by removing the human delivery element to the customer is the most attractive financially, it is however also the most complex both legally and technologically.

Despite this one major logistics company has been taking steps that may prove the viability of unmanned delivery systems by actually employing rather ancient technology for bulk delivery, albeit in specific regions, thus avoiding problems such as hitting the customer on the head, causing the closure of an airport, or having a youth with a catapult attempting to gain access to the latest iPhone.

In August, China’s SF Express began trial operations with an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that firmly places its smaller brethren well and truly in the shade. The FH-98 (pictured) is a conversion of a Nanchang Y-5 transport aircraft, which itself is a copy of the Russian An-2 aircraft that first flew in 1947!

This UAV is has a cargo volume of 15 m3 and is capable of carrying a maximum load of 1.5 tonnes. With a cruising speed of 110 mph (180 kmh) it has a range of 745 miles (1200 kms) and is capable of taking off and landing on strips only 150 metres long.

SF Express are only using these drones on nine routes currently to test their viability and safety. However, the company reports that so far they have been impressed by the aircraft's commercial prospects, stating that the aeroplanes are comparable to road haulage services in terms of running costs but with the benefit of being considerably faster.

Of course, this technology does have security issues and, in fact, has already been used in a military context. No doubt these sorts of actions will continue to provoke nightmares amongst national security and legislative personnel around the world.

As we have stated previously, there are certain specialist areas where drones are the perfect tool and it still remains to be seen just what influence unmanned systems will have on the shipment of freight in the future. However it is certain that, love them or hate them, drones are going to be increasing part of the industry, it simply remains a question of exploring all the potential niche sectors.