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Cargo

New modes of thinking

From drones to airships, new flying vehicles are being developed. But are they likely to succeed commercially, and do they represent an opportunity or a threat? Ian Putzger finds out
 

Air cargo has the potential to become a hell of a lot more exciting. Logistics has occasionally been likened to a battleground, but those scenarios lack the pyrotechnics associated with war. This could change, due to new visions of surface-to-air missiles and killer drones blasting into the skies to bring down cargo-carrying contraptions.

 

It was certainly no coincidence that the opening salvo in the drone wars fantasy came from the midst of the e-commerce sector, a universe watched with profound unease by many in the air cargo industry as something that threatens to unleash fundamental change in the business. Last autumn, Amazon boss Jeff Bezos unveiled a bold vision of an armada of drones delivering packages within 30 minutes of consumers placing their orders. According to him, the drones can carry up to five pounds, which covers 86% of the items that Amazon delivers.

 

The company backed the fanfare with a video on its website showing a drone carrying a package from a warehouse to a residential address.

 

The Amazon vision has sparked creative reactions, among them a report that Walmart allegedly has plans to install mini surface-to-air missiles on the rooftops of all of its 4,786 store locations across the US that would exclusively target Amazon drones. It also provoked a post from a notorious hacker claiming to have developed software that would turn his drones into killer machines that hack into the software of other drones flying within range, disable their connection to their owner and hijack them.

 

Horst Manner-Romberg, principal of MRU, a research and consulting firm that specialises in the express parcel and mail sectors, applauds Amazon’s presentation for the buzz it has created but dismisses the message as unrealistic for a host of reasons – namely the drones’ mobility being too restricted and their payloads too small. Above all, owing to safety concerns, national authorities are not likely to allow legions of drones to buzz around populated areas, he points out.

 

In addition, there would be a sound commercial roadblock: “Considering the price of drones, why don’t I order a cheap piece of merchandise, throw that away and keep the drone?” Manner-Romberg reflects.

 

He does see viable applications for drones in logistics, though. Disaster relief or delivering medicine to remote areas are two sectors where trials have already been conducted, he points out.

 

Oliver Evans, chief cargo officer of Swiss WorldCargo, supports efforts to deploy drones for such endeavours. Swiss is involved in the Flying Donkey Challenge, which is organised by Switzerland’s La Fondation Bundi, a non-profit organisation, and will be staged in Kenya in November. The challenge has drawn 33 entrants from the academic and corporate sectors that will demonstrate unmanned aerial vehicles providing transportation in remote areas.

 

“The profitable deployment of such a network of Flying Donkeys is for tomorrow, but there is no doubt that drones will play a role in the supply chains of the future. A future that is not so far away: a future that we can shape,” Evans comments.

 

Like Manner-Romberg, he does not regard drones as alternatives to air cargo or express parcel supply chains, but as a unique mode of transportation that can play a role where other modes do not work, such as accessing remote terrain. >>


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