Drone delivery, what’s the E.T.(A)?

Deep Dive

In the famous 1982 film E.T., the line everyone remembers is “phone home”. Had the film come out a half-century later that line could well be “E.T. drone home”.

At only 2ft 10ins, E.T. would be no problem payload-wise for a medium-to-large drone, although the typically middle-mile range would not get him home in one trip.

Drone delivery networks offer a new way to deliver goods, in 2022 more than 2,000 commercial drone deliveries happened every day. And the learning taken from each delivery feeds directly into expediting the commercialisation of the eVTOL sector.

But how is a drone delivery network established and operated, where do these networks fit into the transport landscape and how do they compare to current modes of delivery?

The delivery of perishable goods  from pharmaceuticals and healthcare to newspapers and flowers  can immediately benefit from a drone’s capabilities somewhere along the delivery chain. This is an area Dronamics has identified, its Black Swan drone reduces delivery times by up to 80%.

“The market tells us that time-critical and perishable goods are where our same-day solution can make a meaningful difference – food, flowers, pharmaceuticals and healthcare, mail, newspapers, as well as e-commerce,” a spokesperson for Dronamics tells Revolution.Aero.

The technology can also support a payload of 350kg (700lbs) which opens up further avenues for utilisation, including delivery of spare parts and humanitarian aid. Black Swan (pictured below) can land on a variety of terrains, including unpaved strips, allowing it to easily integrate into supply chains while at the same time opening new trade routes and opportunities. “Imagine connecting outer cities and towns, mountain villages and islands that nowadays take days, or even weeks, to reach,” says the spokesperson.

A significant portion of focus in the eVTOL space is concentrated on network infrastructure, from vertiports to air traffic systems. Not all drones are 100% electric, especially on the larger side, but most are hybrid. Which creates requirements for charging infrastructure either at HQ or a remote base, depending on battery life.

Australian electric aviation charging specialist, Electro.Aero has a ready-made solution and tells us it is in discussion with a number of large drone manufacturers. Electro can deliver a shipping container filled with batteries offering between 500kWh and 1.2MWh of power. This grid-independent energy supply can power two of the firm’s RAPID 200 chargers for a total maximum charge rate of over 400kW. Also, the swappable 800V battery modules come with an expected lifespan of over 10 years.

“The 180-500kg drones would likely be happy with our 30kW charger,” Joshua Portlock, CEO and founder, Electro.Aero, tells Revolution.Aero. “The mobile energy supply can either be solar or grid-charged. We understand that especially in urban environments [as many droneports will be] you can have limited access to the grid to trickle-charge the mobile supply. But as long as that supply can fast-charge the aircraft it serves its purpose.”

Droneport facilities can be deployed in any existing airport, as well as at airfields and strips of land that allow for landing and take-off of the Black Swan, says Dronamics. The Sofia-based firm’s technology does not require electric charging as it employs a combustion engine with a roadmap to use biofuel and eventually hydrogen.

The spokesperson tells us: “Our droneport facilities have a cargo warehouse dedicated to Dronamics under a self-handling model which aims to be semi-automated within the first year of operations, with plan’s to become fully automated. Access for loading docks will be available at the facility and additionally, if there is a need, to collect cargo from the aircraft for dedicated loads, making it an option for faster delivery. There shall also be a hangar for the storage of our drones to accommodate maintenance.”

Despite the positive impact drones could have on traditional delivery networks, the cost per package does not yet make sense, apart from in select regions with poor or no transport infrastructure. Current regulations, almost across the board, state that people can only operate and monitor one drone at a time and another person must simultaneously monitor the airspace in which the drone operates. As a result, labour represents up to 95% of the total cost of drone delivery, according to new research by McKinsey.

Breaking down the costs of delivery, on a 6x6x6 inch package travelling five miles from point-to-point, a drone would cost $13.50. For comparison an electric car would cost $9.40 and a van powered by internal combustion engine, $11.60. “These costs are not yet competitive with electric cars and vans, or with internal combustion engine vans doing a single delivery, or any type of vehicle doing multiple deliveries in a single run,” said McKinsey.

Operators need to be able to shift focus from observing airspace to operating drones to become price competitive. This requires regulation to advance to allow a single operator to manage as many as 20 drones in a busy airspace. McKinsey predicts, if drone operators can manage 20 drones simultaneously, a single package delivery will cost about $1.50 to $2. Which lines up with the per-package cost for an electric car delivering five packages, any type of van delivering 100 packages and, on the whole, is less than the delivery fee required today by firms like Deliveroo and Uber Eats.

E.T. used telekinesis to evade a police roadblock back in the ‘80s on the way to the spaceship that would take him home, creating an iconic shot in the process. This century’s version would be less dramatic – as a drone completes the journey cleanly, quietly and ahead of time – but also a lot less stressful.

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