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Big cargo drones set to take off, despite regulatory hurdles

THE traditional logistics supply chain is coming under significant and diverse pressures, from environmental challenges to staff shortages, and congestion, writes James Jordan, a lawyer with London law firm HFW (Holman Fenwick & Willan)

03 January 2020 - 19:00

THE traditional logistics supply chain is coming under significant and diverse pressures, from environmental challenges to staff shortages, and congestion, writes James Jordan, a lawyer with London law firm HFW (Holman Fenwick & Willan).

'The solution to these problems may be on the horizon in the form of Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAV) and Large Unmanned Cargo Aircraft (LUCA),' said Mr Jordan.



The global value of trade in goods has increased dramatically, rising from US$10 trillion in 2005 to $17.5 trillion in 2017, he said in an article in London's Air Cargo News.



'Despite this staggering growth, the typical logistics supply chain - involving marine/air transport supplemented by point-to-point trucking or rail between fixed infrastructure bases - has not changed significantly since the mid-20th century,' Mr Jordan said.



Arguably, the most exciting development is the integration of UAVs into the supply chain, he said. Logistics drones can be categorised into three groups: Final-mile parcel delivery, long-distance, high-value parcel delivery and large unmanned cargo aircraft (LUCA).



Each category has a compelling use case, with small payload drones receiving the most publicity (eg, Amazon Prime). The game changer for the global cargo industry is likely to be the successful deployment of LUCA.



Advancements in Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS) operations and batteries have helped realise the commercial possibilities of LUCA. However, concerns remain in cost per mile of UAVs, given the well-publicised limitations of electric aircraft range and payload.



In the short-term, jet fuel-powered LUCA will be a more commercially viable option.



The global drone logistics market is fragmented, with a large number of small entities competing within a global market that generated only $24 million in revenue in 2018 though revenue is expected to grow to $1.6 billion by 2027



LUCA projects in development include Sabrewing Aircraft Inc, whose prototype can carry a load of 455kg for 1800km, and Elroy Air, whose drone can carry 113kg for 482km. The accolade for the most ambitious project, however, goes to California-based start-up, Natilus. which is developing a 60m-long drone with a 100 ton (220,000lbs) capacity.



Indonesian carrier Garuda recently announced plans to purchase 100 UAVs from China's Beihang Technology in order to deliver freight to Indonesia's 18,000 islands. The UAVs will have payloads of up to 2.2 tons (4,400lbs), despite domestic UAV regulations stipulating a maximum take-off weight of 7kg.



It remains to be seen how many of these projects will achieve their goals, but ambitious plans are afoot provided the regulatory environment is able to keep pace.



As most projects are currently at the prototype stage, the initial regulatory focus will be on type certification rather than flight rules.



Most commentators recognise that the regulations for flight operations are years away from being ready for the deployment of an automated cargo fleet. This is partly due to regulators still grappling with the challenges created by small UAVs.



Significant strides have, however, been made in relation to certification, with the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) recently publishing certification conditions for autonomous VTOLs (Vertical Take-off and Landing), which address cargo requirements up to a maximum take-off weight of 3,175kg.



'Significant changes will, however, be required if aircraft similar to the 100-ton Natilus are to get off the ground,' Mr Jordan said.


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