An opinion piece on drone delivery by Faradair® Managing Director – Neil Cloughley
A lot has been mentioned recently about ‘drone’ delivery services. Companies such as Amazon, Google, DHL and others are pushing a view that we will all soon be receiving our packages via drone delivery device.
Whilst there is no doubt that autonomous delivery technology will arrive, the manner in which this is delivered is still very much open to debate. At Faradair®, we have a more realistic vision for drone delivery; however we prefer the term UAV (Unmanned Air Vehicle) delivery.
Having been involved in and around military drones at a young age in the mid 1980’s, I learned a great deal about the trials and tribulations of ‘drones’ (RPV’s back in the day) and some of the major problems that come from flying powered craft anywhere near areas of population. There is nothing more disturbing for a UAV operator than to realise that the aircraft is no longer responding to commands and subsequently realising that the ‘failsafe’ back-up is not responding either. Put this scenario in an urban environment and the scenario becomes even more critical.
There are two major problems for drone delivery and they come in the form of ‘payload’ capability and ‘communication’.
Payload – In order for any reasonable size of package to be delivered economically, it requires an air vehicle with some considerable mass to sensibly lift said payload safely. This in itself creates a major problem as the larger the air vehicle gets, the greater the impact threat, resulting in considerable damage and harm risk to those under the operational flight-path. If the air vehicle gets bigger, how do you power this drone? Electric can only get you so far, so does this mean a heavy fuel option? A hybrid power system? A winged option rather than multi-rotor? Will noise become an issue?
In terms of impact threat, there are multiple potential collision and third party damage issues that drones in an urban space could cause and many people are ignoring the collateral damage risk of an out of control drone. For example, if a package delivery drone crashes on a dual carriageway and a car swerves to avoid it causing an even bigger incident that possibly results in serious injury, the question that will be asked is – Who is to blame?
Would it be the driver of the car? The pilot of the drone? The package delivery company or the person that ordered the product? With today’s litigious society, it could be all of the above. This is just one example of the significant risk factors that make urban ‘to your door’ drone delivery an extremely difficult proposition to enable safely.
Just this weekend a number of national newspapers around the world printed articles highlighting the ugly threat of terrorism and the use of drones to deliver ‘dirty payloads’ over a city. Currently, a drone flying down a major city street is a rare sight and therefore easier to detect and deal with. If however the sight of delivery drones became commonplace, then the ability to hide a significant threat within that flight traffic becomes a much larger problem.
So as you can see, the notion of drone delivery is great, the realistic constraints of the world we live in today, are a little more difficult to overcome.
Communication – As demonstrated when the American military lost one of its most advanced UAV’s in the Middle East, drones do come down when you least expect them to and more often than not, this is related to loss of communication. Suffice to say that most delivery companies will not be using the level of secure satellite communications available to the US military, therefore the risk of a civilian drone going AWOL is significantly higher than their military cousins.
The urban environment is now a thick soup of signals and electronic transmissions, from Wi-Fi, to Mobile and Satellite signals, etc. Flying a drone into this environment is going to open it to the risk of signal loss and at that moment, it just might not do what you expect it to do, which may result in a scenario such as that above. Worse still, the drone may be subject to ‘payload hijack’ by criminal gangs and who knows how elaborate these schemes could become.
Some of these concerns were proven recently when a DHL drone delivery demonstration was called off by that ‘naysayer’- Mother Nature;
“due to a sudden drop in temperature and accompanying snow which would make piloting the drone unreliable”
This is a drone that was advertised as being “well-suited for use in mountain regions where snow, wind and cold temperatures are prevalent” can anyone else see the problem here?
So, if this is not the immediate future of drone delivery….what is?
At Faradair® we have long planned for our BEHA commuter aircraft to be ‘Drone/UAV’ capable and we see a different delivery model opportunity.
Amazon has just recently penned a deal to lease 20 Boeing 767 Freighter Aircraft, showing their intention to take over their entire logistic delivery process. Not good news for the likes of FedEx or UPS. However this was always somewhat inevitable and we foresee a drone delivery market where operators such as Amazon will take your order; goods then go from their warehoused facilities to the local airport, whereupon the Amazon cargo aircraft then fly to cargo hub airports such as East Midlands Airport in the UK (Much cheaper than trying to get a slot at Heathrow), before being sent out for further delivery by truck.
But what if the next step from arrival hub airport, saw packages unloaded into a fleet of BEHA drones instead of trucks? These six seat sized aircraft, with their short take-off and landing capability could then be sent off on an autonomous route, in a designated ‘air corridor’ for UAV’s.
This takes the drone delivery flight away from major populace areas and the corridor would be clearly designated to other airspace users as a Drone flight channel. Due to the quiet flight capability of the BEHA, this operation could take place at night with no impact on the local populace. Upon arrival of the Drone at a local hub depot, local employed private couriers could then collect the parcels and deliver them 24/7. The UAV BEHA once unloaded then flies back to the main hub airport to reload with packages and head off to a different delivery venue.
The UAV industry has some 30-40 years of experience in drone operations and whilst there are some significant opportunities for drone delivery in the future, investors and fund managers need to consider the realistic constraints of UAV operations over any suburban populace and in that regard, at some point you will have to deal with the aviation authorities. The likes of the FAA, CAA, EASA and other regulatory authorities around the world, have a duty of care of the global airspace and the restrictions placed on manned helicopter operations in and around cities are most likely set to apply to heavy–lift, multi-rotor style delivery drones. If there is a chance that such a delivery drone may collide with a manned aircraft on approach to a major airport like Heathrow for example (i.e. collision avoidance failure on the drone), then the proposition will be pushed back even further.
Not that long ago, a drone almost collided with a military helicopter and despite the warnings, there are still grossly irresponsible people flying their small camera drones near airports. It is for these reasons that drone delivery in urban areas has a very long way to go and some of the hyperbole surrounding the subject matter is not helping to advance the principle. However, we believe there is a path for drone package/light freight delivery via traditional autonomous aircraft and it is an option that can be achieved sensibly and with the complete co-operation of regulatory authorities in the near future.
This subsector of UAV operations is an exciting opportunity area, so watch this space!
Managing Director – Faradair® Aerospace Limited