Drone Startup to Fly Pallets Without Pilots
Dronamics will test a radical new vision of long-range cargo transport in Europe
Delivering things by drone began as a stunt in 2012, when a model airplane dropped a burrito by parachute to a hungry customer waiting below. The concept then graduated, first to a proof-of-principle venture in Iceland using multicopters, then to a well-funded Amazon project in the United Kingdom. But these and similar attempts to solve the last-mile problem—the mile leading to the customer—have largely been disappointing. Amazon recently scaled back its drone-based delivery project in the U.K.
In 2022, Dronamics, a company based in London and Sofia, Bulgaria, will test-fly a drone in Europe that will carry far more than a mere burrito and over far longer distances. It addresses the less sexy but equally important middle-distance problem—the route that connects factories to warehouses. The point is to take a slice of business that’s now handled by regular air freight and by trucks—above all, the quick delivery of critical parts. If this service had been available a year or two ago, it might not have prevented the logistics logjam that now plagues the world, but it would have cleared away some of the more problematic bottlenecks.
Dronamics will run trials with its partners, including DHL and Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, in the hope of eventually fielding thousands of drones, each carrying as much as 350 kilograms of cargo up to 2,500 kilometers. The European Union has facilitated this sort of experimentation by instituting a single certification policy for drone aircraft. Once its aircraft are certified, Dronamics must get a route approved through one of the E.U.’s member countries; that done, it should be fairly easy to get other member countries to agree as well.
In October, Dronamics announced that it would use Malta as its base, with a view to connecting first to Italy and later to other Mediterranean countries.
One thing Dronamics doesn’t do is full-scale autonomy: Its planes do not detect and avoid obstacles. Instead, each flight is programmed in advance, in a purely deterministic way. Flights often take place in controlled airspace and always between drone ports that the company controls. Someone on the ground monitors the flight from afar, and if something unexpected arises, that person can redirect the plane.
“We operate like a proper airline, but we can intervene,” says Svilen Rangelov, the cofounder and CEO of Dronamics. “We’re looking for underserved airports, using time slots where there is no passenger traffic. In the United States there are 17,000 airports, but only about 400 are commercially used. The rest don’t have regular service at all.”
Unlike the multicopter burrito drones of years past, or even Amazon’s prototypes, these machines fly on fixed wings and are powered by internal combustion engines, the better to carry big loads long distances and to operate at off-the-grid airfields. “Anything less than 200 miles [about 320 kilometers] is not appropriate because, given the time to get to the airport, fly, and then pick up, you may as well truck it,” Rangelov says.
The company’s drone is called Black Swan, a phrase often used to describe important but unpredictable events. “That was precisely the reasoning” behind the name, Rangelov says, explaining what makes this drone so unique and rare. "We knew [the drone] had to be cheaper to produce and to operate than any existing models.”
The drone likely will not be carrying one pallet of the same things but multiple packages for many customers.
Because this vehicle is intended to transport cargo with no people on board, Dronamics could design the interior to fit cargo pallets. “It’s exactly the right cargo size for this business,” Rangelov says. “It likely will not be carrying one pallet of the same things but multiple packages for many customers.” And Dronamics claims it can carry cargo for half of what today’s air freighters charge.
Hellmann Worldwide Logistics sees a lot of potential for using Dronamics in Africa and other places with limited infrastructure. For now, though, the company is focused on the dense population, manageable distances, and supportive governmental institutions of Europe.
“Especially between north and south Europe—from Germany and Hungary, where there’s a lot of automotive business,” says Jan Kleine-Lasthues, Hellmann’s chief operating officer for air freight. There are also supply lines going into Italy that service the cruise ships on the Mediterranean Sea, he says, and fresh fish would be ideal cargo. Indeed, Dronamics is working on a temperature-controlled container.
What effect would massive fleets of such drones have had on today’s supply-chain problems? “It could help,” he says. “If the container isn’t arriving with production material, we could use drones to keep production alive. But it’s not replacing the big flow—it’s just a more flexible, more agile mode of transport.”
Before cargo drones darken the skies, though, Hellmann wants to see how the rollout goes.
“First of all, we want to try it,” Kleine-Lasthues says. “One use case is replacing commercial air freight—for example, Frankfurt to Barcelona by drone; also, there’s a use case replacing vans. If it is working, I think it can be quickly ramped up. The question is how fast can Dronamics add capacity to the market.”
This article appears in the January 2022 print issue as “Flying Pallets Without Pilots.”
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