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Aeolus Perspectives 7th Edition: Is the future freight transport vertical? The chance to the next change coming with drones


Drone in the sky with package

Small, fast, autonomous driven: UAVs and UASs – also known as drones – can change the way to transport and deliver goods. The vertical mobility can set a new paradigm in which trucks can also play a lion share. 

Imagine to be at the top of a mountain and suddenly you need some new laces for your boots. Or suppose simply to be in your downtown office, when you realize to need a last-minute gift. Even more, consider the tragical situation in which it is urgently necessary to have the right pharma for saving a life – perhaps, the life of someone you love! In all these circumstances, the most performing 1-day delivery service is not enough. But a drone can be the filling answer.

The vertical mobility sounds to be the “the next best thing” in the logistics and transport sector. Drones, also called an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) or unmanned aerial system (UAS), can have significant roles in the defense and commercial sectors. They are increasingly used for border surveillance and in various commercial applications, such as precision agriculture and cargo transportation. Drones can transport a wide range of products: small packages, food and, among the others, pharma and medical supplies too. The UAVs can be controlled remotely or be autonomous, regulated by software, together with sensors and other locating technology. So, by drones, it is possible to deliver plenty of different goods almost anywhere and in a very short time. 

The opportunity is so evident and potentially huge that big firms are already exploring this growing market. According to the recent research “The Future of Vertical Mobility” by Porsche Consulting, after the first filed test, in 2025, the electric passenger drones or eVTOL (electric vertical take-off and landing) aircraft are expected to start providing commercial mobility services. Within one decade after that, by 2035, drones could already be servicing their elaborate passenger network with about 23,000 units plying major routes and creating a market worth 32 billion dollars. 

In the meanwhile, venture capitalists are investing a lot in the delivery drone industry and some transport and logistics big companies, among them Amazon or UPS, are engaged in testing the use of drones for delivery as well as in researching and developing activities to commercialize them as new services. The e-commerce giant Amazon carried out the first drones’ tests in 2016, so three years after CEO Jeff Bezos announced that within 4-5 years a something similar delivery service would be operative for maximum 3-kilo packages and 16-kilometer distances. The project became real with Amazon Prime Air, a system for delivering packages to customers in about 30 minutes by small air vehicles without pilots on board. Amazon Prime Air is developing a secure system that respects the environment and strengthens the services already provided to millions of customers. It will take a little bit time more to put the system into service - even if, it is expected that the first operations in selected cities can start early -. Anyway, according to top management, one day seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing trucks on the street.

The same UPS is moving in this direction. The American shipping company has announced an innovative logistics service to deliver medical samples via unmanned drones in collaboration with Matternet, active in autonomous drone technology. The program will take place at the main hospital and the WakeMed campus in Raleigh (North Carolina, USA) within the metropolitan area. The project will be overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration and the North Carolina Department of 

Transportation. At the end of last February, UPS has carried out and completed its first trial with a drone that has been launched by a moving truck, allowing the driver to accelerate delivery times in rural areas. The test marked the beginning of several daily commercial flights scheduled at the WakeMed campus in Raleigh. The UPS and Matternet program is a milestone for unmanned aviation in the United States. Currently, most medical samples and prototypes are transported by courier vehicles via WakeMed’s expanding healthcare system. The drone transport offers an option more for on-demand and day-to-day delivery, beyond the ability to avoid road delay, increase medical delivery efficiency, reduce costs and improve the patient’s experience with potentially life-saving benefits. 

The next step should be gaining load capacity and therefore rising both size and weight of packages transported by UAVs. A few months ago, the Californian start-up Elroy Air has completed tests on the first flight of an unmanned cargo drone that can even carry heavy loads. This one could begin to make real deliveries even by 2020. 

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