In 1903, the Wright brother flew the first plane at Kitty Hawk. They were put into real-world use, a little more than a decade later during the First World War. They were not very strategically important in those days because they did not have much of a range or payload capacity. But by the time the war ended, there were several plane manufacturers who did not know what to do with their production capacity.
In England, just before the First World War, planes had been put to use to create the first airmail service in 1911.
After the world war, many planes were put into service flying airmails across the world. Pilots used to fly line of sight, there was no Air Traffic Controller. That is how we began to exploit the third dimension.
The first air tickets were sold to people in the 1920s, who were willing to sit in the back of an airmail plane and fly to their destination as cargo.
By the 1960s air travel was ubiquitous and the US aviation industry could not get enough planes to meet demand. The number of airlines exploded in the US and trans-Atlantic travel became incredibly fast. This changed the nature of business and commerce forever and gave birth to a very high degree of financial integration between the USA and Europe.
Air travel went from unimaginable to undeniable in 4 short decades.
We are on the verge of another such shift.
3 Kgs – The weight at which a falling drone can become lethal.
8 Kms – Maximum range of a small civilian drone
200 Kms – Maximum range of a winged drone
2 Kms – Maximum payload capacity of a small civilian drone
200 Kg – Maximum payload capacity of a winged civilian drone
So what had held it back?
The Legal Problem
If a 3 Kg drone fell out of the sky on someone, it could kill them and this fact alone has kept drones from being adopted for delivery. This is a headache so far as legislation is concerned especially in extremely litigious countries like the US. There are other issues like overflight – how much of the air above my house do I own?
In 2016, I had written a blog about the law being disrupted. The issue I had highlighted was to do with the Ownership of the drone as opposed to the ownership of the space where it is flying.
In most cities, this alone inhibits drone delivery. The legal grey areas will have to be addressed first. India has at least released 2 versions of the Drone policy.
The Engineering Problem
The bigger problem is that engineers have to constantly play the game of balancing the weight of the drone (read number of batteries) with the range and the payload that it can carry. This is slowly resolving itself as battery technology improves. In the meantime, the long-range flight is undertaken by drones that look like plane-winged drones; rather than the quad-copters that we tend to associate with drones.
For example, in Africa, Zipline has take-off sites and landing sites for winged drones and human presence is needed at these places, it is not 100% automated.
Covid gave the drone industry a huge break!
Under the Telangana government’s ‘Medicines from the Sky’ project, delivery service company Dunzo Digital and tech firm Skye Air will jointly conduct trials for drone delivery of medicines and vaccines. The trials will begin on September 20 in Telangana’s Vikarabad and will continue till September 25.
Skye Air, which focuses on an end-to-end ecosystem for drone-based logistics, is a part of the Dunzo MedAir consortium for the Government of Telangana’s ‘Medicines from the Sky’ project. The company will work in collaboration with Dunzo Digital to enable faster and efficient drone-based healthcare logistics during the six-day trial.
Dunzo Digital, which is backed by Google, is a hyper-local on-demand delivery service company based out of Bengaluru. The company operates in Bengaluru, Delhi, Gurugram, Pune, Chennai, Jaipur, Mumbai and Hyderabad.
Source: India Today
Drones falling out of the sky is not a problem when they are flying over farms and forests. Medicines need to reach far off locations and this prompts laws to be reconsidered and permissions to be provided. Africa has been at the forefront for years now.
In Oct. 2016, Zipline started delivering blood products to 21 Rwandan hospitals on-demand, reducing delivery time from four hours by road to within 20 minutes, using drones that travel up to 100 km per hour at a time.
The company has since added more medical products to its stock, including medicines and covid-19 vaccines, and has delivered packages to more than 2,000 hospitals across Rwanda, Ghana, and the US (where it is based.)
It marked its fifth anniversary last month by reaching 200,000 commercial deliveries, even as it says it serves 75% of the blood needs outside Kigali, Rwanda’s capital. These numbers suggest Zipline has nailed down an efficient model for a complicated task.
In the case of Africa, it was the necessity that drove innovation. There are several parts of Africa that are inaccessible through roads during rains. This is something that happens very often in tropical areas. That need drove the adoption of drone deliveries half a decade ago.
In the meantime, the world is waiting for an ‘innovative’ American company to come up with drone deliveries.
Investors are waking up to the need to invest in this segment and to propel innovations because of the pandemic.
Two short-term trends pushed investors to take a serious look at air taxi and cargo drone startups since the start of the pandemic. First, factory shutdowns, port closures, and [whipsawing consumer demand] scrambled supply chains, revealing serious vulnerabilities in the way businesses move goods through the global economy. With ports jammed, rail yards in disarray, and trucking facing a shortage of personnel and equipment, the idea of using long-range cargo drones to transport boxes no longer seemed so far-fetched. Plus, moving goods (or commuters) through the air could ease traffic in increasingly crowded cities.
Second, governments cut stimulus checks and lowered interest rates to jumpstart their economies. Flush with cheap cash, investors have pumped record-breaking amounts of funding into startups in both 2020 and 2021. And after seeing Tesla’s breakout success, investors have gotten excited about electric vehicles and autonomous driving. “It was, ‘Hey, we’re doing this with cars. We’re starting to do this with trucks. Let’s bring some of that same kind of technology to aviation,’” said Trotter.
As expected all the money is going to the companies in the US and Europe who have not really done any real-world deployment. The startups in developing nations are doing far more in the real world and the only thing holding them back is not capital – it is the government.
This year, startups building autonomous drones to carry passengers and packages have raised at least $3.8 billion, up from $1.1 billion in 2020. That compares to just $438 million in venture capital funding for the entire decade between 2009 and 2019, according to data from the investment tracking firm Pitchbook. Most of the recent wave of funding has gone to a few startup winners, including Joby Aviation ($1.6 billion raised), Lilium ($842 million), and Archer Aviation ($656 million).
The silicon valley startups are all spending gargantuan sums of money to make air-taxi a reality. The infrastructure, as well as the certifications needed to make this possible, is yet to be fully understood. In the meantime, startups in India and Africa with relatively meagre funding are delivering real-world impact.
Would we be able to leapfrog the West when it comes to exploiting the third dimension?