A growing buzz about fixed-wing drones
04 / 09 / 2018
Questions are beginning to be raised as to whether the tech bubble has peaked. A recent report in the UK’s Guardian newspaper suggested that demand for Silicon Valley rental space has plateaued, while start-ups are finding it harder to secure funding from investors.
In the world of air cargo, technological advancements have centred on digitisation and drones.
One company sure that the drone market will not turn into another technology bubble is Bulgarian start-up Dronamics, which was founded by brothers Svilen and Konstantin Rangelov.
Svilen Rangelov agrees that there has been a certain amount of hype around the drone market over recent years and points to the hype cycle graphic produced by IT and advisory firm Gartner.
Gartner hype cycle
The Gartner hype cycle is a graphical representation of the process new technologies go through before they are eventually adopted.
The cycle is basically a line graph with a peak followed by a trough, then a slight upward slope before it eventually flattens out.
The cycle has five phases. It starts with a technology trigger, next comes the “peak of inflated expectations”, followed by the “trough of disillusionment”, then the “slope of enlightenment” and finally the “plateau of productivity”.
Rangelov believes that the drone market is now past the inflated expectation phase and a more realistic view on how the aircraft can be utilised in supply chains is setting in.
“It is a typical hype cycle,” he says. “We are definitely at a point where people are starting to be more realistic and saying ‘show me the money’.
“You had a lot of companies that came up with drone products and now they have all switched to services because hardware is hard and you need scale, especially consumer hardware.
“So now there are very specific verticals where drones are being used, but you have very few platform providers, very few original equipment manufacturers.”
The ‘Black Swan’ drone being produced by Dronamics is fixed-wing, rather than the vertical take-off type that e-commerce and express delivery companies like Amazon and DHL have pioneered.
He says: “A lot of people still think that a drone has to take off vertically even though the original drones were fixed-wing military aircraft.
“It can be difficult getting them back to this concept, but when they spend a bit of time thinking about it they quickly realise it is a much more realistic approach.
“That is why we are getting interest from the companies that talk to us because they themselves have tried small drones and they know that they are not suitable for their use cases.
“They are great for inspections, they are great for small area agricultural use surveillance and so on, but for cargo you need a fixed wing solution.”
Over the past year the company has been working on building a 4 m wingspan scale model that was exhibited recently at the Farnborough Airshow in the UK.
The scale model allowed the company to validate the design’s aerodynamics, performance, controls and communication and has been tested over the last seven months in Bulgaria at various unused airfields away from traffic and populated areas.
The company has now started work on the full-scale model that will have a 16 m wingspan, capacity to carry 350kgs and will be able to fly a distance of 2,500km.
Dronamics is developing its own traffic management system so that it can centrally monitor aircraft.
The company estimates that costs will be 50% lower than existing solutions and Rangelov adds that there is already interest from customers.
“Everything we have done has always been with the mind that we will have to build a full-scale model,” says Rangelov.
“We have started detailed part design, early next year we will produce it, in the middle of next year we will assemble it and by the second half of 2019 we plan to test it with at least three customers from Asia and Africa.
“There is nothing I can talk about in detail at this point, but we do have a lot of interest, mostly from e-commerce companies, cargo airlines and integrators.”
At the moment there are various ideas about how drones can fit into supply chains, ranging from final mile delivery to full scale aircraft that could replace existing freighters on long-haul flights.
However, these are not the markets being targeted by Dronamics. Rangelov says the Black Swan will offer similar capacity to a Sprinter van and become a viable option on journeys where a van would need to travel for at least seven hours.
Over longer distances, the economics of the drone stack up even more favourably.
Dronamics’ website talks of how the Black Swan will “democratise airfreight” and lower the cost of shipping in emerging markets, “transforming whole economies”.
Target markets include Latin American, Asian and African countries where Dronamics envisages fleets of the Black Swan, taking advantage of the multitude of small airfields that are often unused, and training local personnel as drone and logistics operators.
The company hopes to partner with local industry to provide a way of getting goods in and out of small, remote, mountainous and/or island communities within hours at a cost that is often below road transportation.
Rangelov says the aircraft is mostly designed with e-commerce in mind because it can carry a large volume of low density cargo, around 400-800 parcels, depending on what has been ordered.
“There are two types of e-commerce happening,” he says. “One is e-tailing [the online retail store of a single retailer] and the other is market places [sites such as Amazon and eBay that list products from multiple retailers or individuals].
“When you have e-tailing, you have a central warehouse, usually in the capital city or the main port city where cargo is imported to, gets Customs cleared and then becomes available to the local market for sales.
“We could be useful in that section, providing connectivity from the main hubs to the smaller towns, on routes which do not have enough capacity to sustain freighter operations, or where there are no existing passenger flights.
“The other use case, which is very interesting, is point-to-point connectivity. When you live in a small town and you are an entrepreneur, you want to do more than just sell to your small town and through market places everyone is a potential customer.
“But to sell to the bigger market you still need to manage the shipping costs and if someone can offer you a lower cost capacity with big connectivity then that becomes very attractive.
“To me, this is a very exciting use case because in the first example you are just perpetuating urbanisation and single centres of commerce, but the second example could result in an economic growth which is more evenly distributed within a country.
“We think our airframe will affect a lot of markets but it is not a solution for everything. Whatever you want to send less-than-truckload at a high distance in a short time, that is when it is interesting.”
Rangelov says the company decided to opt for a fixed-wing aircraft because it is much cheaper than a vertical takeoff drone, which would also require an investment in a heliport.
A fixed-wing droneport layout is also much simpler. The Black Swan’s short take-off distance means it can utilise an airstrip of just 400 m that doesn’t need to be paved, it can be grass or gravel.
Rangelov explains that there are plenty of unused, or underutilised, aviation airfields in rural locations that could be put to work as droneports.
Droneports would also need some storage space and a maintenance shed, but it is expected the level of investment required should be as little as four or five digits as they will not be on prime real estate.
From these airfields, which could provide services to several nearby towns or cities, first mile or last mile transport would then be carried out by a delivery vehicle. Each site would also require personnel to run the operation.
However, as the project continues, Rangelov admits there are still some unknowns around regulations and fees charged to drone networks, although he does not seem overly concerned by this.
“There are still some unknowns which don’t depend on us,” he says. “For example, what will the landing fees for such a thing be, what would be the fee we pay to the Civil Aviation Authority?
“We have spoken to regulators from around the world – Asia, Africa, Europe, America – and we see, depending on the country, that the regulators’ main concern with unmanned technologies is the proliferation of consumer drones and consumers who are not trained. That has been the headache for them.
“When it comes to an operator like us that wants to do business and help their economy, they are very open to something like this because they see the exact needs in each of their countries that they will solve with a solution like this.”
To help influence the regulatory debate, at the start of the year the company became an IATA strategic partner and will take part in a working group that is in the process of being formed.
“We know that regulations will need all the stakeholders to come to the table so that’s why we have taken on a collaborative approach,” explains Rangelov.
To those readers still sceptical as to whether the model will work, one recent development suggests that drone networks will be successful.
In July, cargo airline Astral Aviation signed a letter of intent to purchase two drones with plans to launch a network in Kenya next year.
The company plans a phased implementation of its drone network, first domestically, then regionally and then across Africa.
The first phase focus in Kenya will be on aid and relief, e-commerce, postal networks, medical deliveries, schoolbooks and the oil, gas and mining sectors.
The second phase, the eastern African region, will focus on point to point and last mile delivery within “strategic drone hubs”, serving a population of 250m people, all subject to regulatory approval.
The third and final phase will extend the range of phase two to include a number of strategic locations in Africa.
“There were certainly more challenges earlier on,” concludes Rangelov. “People believe in the future of unmanned cargo but they are sceptical because of the regulations that need to be developed, but as they see more and more of these become a reality it is becoming easier.
“Of course people always prefer to invest in the next mobile app or over engineered juicer, but we are seeing more and more interest in something that is close to real life, like we do.”