With the advancement of technology and hundred per cent digitalisation of business operations, flying taxis or cargo drones are becoming an integral part of the rapidly expanding air cargo industry. In the endeavour to successfully set its footprint globally, the heavy-lift unmanned cargo aircraft is slowly and steadily reaching for the Indian skies with stakeholders exploring more new opportunities to put the technology into rigorous operations of delivery and distribution propelled by the unprecedented COVID-19 pandemic.
Ritika Arora Bhola
The COVID-19 pandemic has truly accelerated several potential innovation opportunities in the air cargo business, globally. From adopting and implementing advanced technologies like Internet of Things (IoT), Blockchain, Data Science and Artificial Intelligence, etc. to moving towards hundred per cent digitalisation and deploying air taxis, popularly called as Drones – the global air cargo industry has come a long way and is striving hard to sustain resilient supply chains and keep cargo moving efficiently in these challenging times, along with ensuring the safety of customers as well as employees.
With the recent news of airlines and aircraft operators gearing up for worldwide distribution of COVID-19 vaccines, many drone operators, worldwide are also taking the opportunity to help in the global cause, with the assistance of health professionals. “There is definitely going to be huge demand for COVID-19 vaccines from countries across the globe, this large demand has forced air cargo logistics service providers worldwide to reimagine the future of drones and how it is going to help the industry at large,” say experts.
Globally, several big Drones manufacturers/operators, airlines, healthcare manufacturers etc., havealready taken the steps in this direction and consideringthe possibility of deploying drones as a distribution modality by delivering cargo faster. Recently, Japan Airlines signed a MoU with California-based drone maker, Matternet to explore delivery of pharmaceutical products and vaccines by drone, as well as to further develop a drone delivery business in Japan. An official spokesperson from the airlines stated, “Due to the lack of delivery personnel and the impact of the global pandemic, the necessity to respond to changes in the logistics industry has become more urgent than ever before, and the use of drones may help realise automatic, contactless delivery services on remote islands, mountainous areas and even within the city.”
Another Aerospace firm, Thales and cargo drone company Skyports are also in the process of launching new drone delivery system for the National Health Service (NHS) in Scotland, which will speed up the delivery of supplies to remote islands.
Similarly, UPS’ drone subsidiary has also been working with Virgina’s Center for Innovative Technology to explore how unmanned aerial systems can assist medical professionals in their fight to stop the spread of coronavirus.
The tests carried out by UPS Flight Forward, DroneUP and Workhorse Group in Virginia evaluated the commercial drone industry’s ability to provide and scale small unmanned aerial systems to support various use cases to speed and assist the US healthcare system during the novel coronavirus crisis, says reports.
UPS Flight Forward has also recently announced the successful completion revenue-generating drone deliveries, which transported prescribed medicines from a pharmacy directly to two customers’ homes.
UPS Flight Forward and CVS Pharmacy are now planning to develop a drone delivery programme to bring to market the speed and convenience advantages that drones are capable of providing.
Scott Price, Chief Strategy and Transformation Officer at UPShad said in a statement, “We’re delighted to build new services that will shatter preconceived notions of how, when and where goods can be delivered.We now have an opportunity to offer different drone delivery solutions, tailored to meet customer needs for speed and convenience.Delivering prescriptions by drone directly to homes could greatly improve the patient experience for CVS customers.”
While in India, hundred per cent efforts are being put in by the Indian Ministry of Civil Aviation (MoCA), healthcare manufacturers, private drone operators and express service providers to make Drones a Success.
On August 27, Amber Dubey, Joint Secretary, MoCA tweeted that the ministry and Directorate General of Civil Aviation (DGCA) are moving fast with the regulatory framework for drones and a separate team is working every day to change the draft rules for drones.
“The draft rules for drones were made in the middle of the Covid-19 crisis. Right now there is a separate team working on the comments coming in from the public and change the rules. By October 2, 2020 the draft rules should go to the law ministry,” he had tweeted.
On another virtual media platform, Dubey had informed, “On the digital sky platform, we have opened up the green areas in July 2020 and the yellow areas on August 15 which comprise the 70 percent of all the space available. For the red zones we have the offline GARUD scheme for which the target approval time is just 7 days. We have already approved 20 consortia for Beyond Visual Line Control (BVLOS) cargo drones and the moment they get the security clearance they will be able to fly. My request to my young friends is to start planning and don’t wait for the security clearance it will happen.” “In the last three weeks, we have approved 12 drone schools for training. For government entities we have launched the Government Authorisation for Relief Using Drones (Garud) scheme in a fast track manner,” Dubey had added.
India’s low budget airline, SpiceJet Ltd in May, 2020 received the required permission to conduct drone trials which will allow the airline to deliver e-commerce productsand medical supplies soon. A SpiceXpress-led consortium, which includes drone maker Throttle Aerospace, was granted permission to operate drones beyond the visual sight of the operator on a trial basis.
Ajay Singh,Chairman and Managing Director at SpiceJet had said in a statement, “Testing of drone technology for last mile connectivity and cost-effective cargo deliveries are a big leap in the air transportation of essential and non-essential supplies in India.”
With the availability of right infrastructure and technology, drone operators are ready to fly in India but there are few challenges which set them aback like rules and regulations in India. No doubt, ministry is pulling up its socks in getting the necessary approvals it might take some more time.
As per the drone operators, “challenges the authorities have are different compared to other countries simply because of our population.”
However, Dubey has always encouragingly said that “all they have to do is simply focus on making the best drones in the world because they have to be better than the drones by foreign companies that are entering India if they want to make an impact in the world.”
The World Economic Forum is also not far behind as its Medicine from the Sky flagship project with the Telangana government and Apollo Hospitals intends to use drones for medical deliveries.
“Our agenda when we get into projects of this nature is to solve the healthcare supply chain conundrum and swifter adoption of drones will help us not only solve the issues that are riddling isolated populations on the ground but also help accelerate the policy adoption,” Vignesh Santhanam, its India Lead, Drones and Tomorrow’s Aerospace had said in a statement.
He added that it is important to support the government to help make quick decisions.