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Drone Age 2023
February 2, 2023
Drones, or unmanned flying machines, have played a prominent role on the battlefield as Ukraine revolutionizes warfare by repurposing them into listening posts, surveillance tools, and lethal weapons operated by soldiers using handheld consoles. But 2023 will mark the beginning of the logistical revolution involving drones. Air traffic control regulators in many countries are devising systems that will make it possible for drones to deliver groceries, prescriptions, and mail as well as to replace trucks, taxis, and cargo containers safely — without chaos and collisions. Already, drones are being used in selected areas to deliver payloads to retail customers that weigh a few pounds. The next step is to delineate aerial flightpaths above existing roads for drones of all sizes, including those capable of delivering tons of freight or passengers. As the skies are regulated, a real-time air traffic control system will usher in a future filled with air-borne traffic.
Two years ago, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration allowed drones to deliver small packages and this Christmas Amazon, Walmart and others launched drone deliveries in parts of California and Texas. Amazon Prime Air began dropping packages in customer backyards and will gradually expand this capability. It guarantees one-hour delivery via hexagonal, six propeller drones that can carry up to 50 pounds. The drones fly to a delivery location, hover at a “safe height”, and then “safely” release the package before rising up to altitude. Walmart is using drones to service stores and has partnered with DroneUp to offer “last-mile delivery services” from warehouses to its retail outlets in Phoenix, Dallas, Tampa, and Orlando. Domino’s restaurant chain is also experimenting with drone deliveries.
Most exciting is that Britain just announced it will create the world’s first drone “super highway” of 165 miles in length, called Project Skyway. The corridor will link several cities and be used for large-scale drones to deliver cargo and other heavy supplies. British telecoms giant, BT, is investing L5 million to get the project off the ground, excuse the pun, and hopes to create drone networks to link hubs across the country and eliminate truck traffic. (Telecoms companies and railroads are ideal hosts for aerial drone highways because they also own easements that criss cross the world.) Currently, drones are restricted to dedicated routes or allowed in unpopulated regions or across water. Hobby drones are also allowed everywhere but restrictions are that their pilots must be able to see them so that can guarantee safety for others. BT hopes its air space will be commercialized in two years.
Dedicated corridors will lead to the “drone age”. In 2023, the world’s first drone “cargo planes” and flying “taxis” will be tested and hopefully commercialized in 2024 or 2025 in selected cities. Orlando Florida is ahead of the pack because it has partnered with NASA to design a network of landing pads for eVTOL (electric vertical-take-off-and-landing) vehicles. Such pads will be located on office tower or condo rooftops, shopping mall parking lots, or atop existing bus or train depots. Orlando is also working with California’s Joby Aviation (which bought Uber Elevate and is controlled by Toyota Motors) and already 1,000 test flights have been completed of up to 154-miles in length all on one battery charge. Joby’s aircraft is capable of transporting a pilot and four passengers at speeds of up to 200 miles per hour, and speculation is that the Federal Aviation Administration may approve commercial operations in 2024. Uber and Boeing are also developing flying vehicles. Another leader is Volocopter, a German aircraft maker, that will test flights of its “VoloCity” passenger-carrying drones in 2023 in the hopes of getting them certified for launch in 2024 in Singapore, the Paris Olympics, and Rome.
Cargo is another drone opportunity. A Bulgarian outfit named Dronamics is already manufacturing the “Black Swan”, a drone – the size of a small courier van -- to transport essential goods and parts throughout the European Union initially, then beyond. The unmanned and remotely controlled aircraft will fly at an altitude of 20,000 feet, below passenger air traffic and be able to haul 770-pound loads. Its developers believe their system can undercut the cost and speed of truck deliveries across the continent. Their range is 1,500 miles — sufficient to link any EU-based cargo hub — and a prototype will be in operation this year. These are Electric Vertical Take-Off vessels that are also hybrids and can be fuelled anywhere.
Increases in urbanized drone air travel and deliveries will help remove vehicles, noise, and emissions from congested cities around the world. Morgan Stanley forecasts the drone market will be worth $1 trillion by 2040 and $9 trillion by 2050 as infrastructure is created or modified. Some eVTOL manufacturers have gone public a few years ago and raised billions to develop their drones, and hope to commercialize this year. Most expect to complete the Federal Aviation Administration certification process this year and ramp up in 2024 for launches in 2025. By contrast, a Deutsche Bank analyst believes that sci-fi flying taxis and transports won’t happen until well into the 2030s.
But once regulatory templates and drone highways are created, adoption will be rapid and dramatic. That was certainly the case with new logistical innovations such as Uber or e-scooters. Eventually, traditional airlines, freight, and railways will be transformed, and sky ports on roofs will dot our cities. Uber will launch a fleet of flying taxis — and plans to take cars off the road and keep costs low — by “batching” passengers. People will be picked up and ride-share in vehicles to a sky port for departure, then fly and ride-share from the sky port to their work destinations. The process will be reversed at the end of the workday.
“These are not helicopters, which are unsafe, noisy and expensive,” said Nikhil Goel, head of product development at Aviation Uber in an interview two years ago. They have noise-proof rotors that allow them to vertically take off, then to fly between sky ports. “A helicopter cost is $10 per mile,” he estimated “but with batching (of passengers) to and from sky ports we can get that cost down to $1.50 per mile. It’s two hours from JFK Airport to Manhattan by car and less than 10 minutes flying.”
Sure sounds like a plan, so buckle up.