25-07-2022 | By Robin Mitchell
While roads and trains are efficient methods for hauling goods, using automated drones to transport time-sensitive cargo presents many benefits, including lack of traffic, low operating costs, and lack of human intervention. Now, the UK will be the home of the world’s longest air highway connecting multiple towns and cities with dedicated airspace lanes for automated drones. What challenges does traditional infrastructure present, what will the new air highway enable, and does this signal the start of drone delivery?
When it comes to the shipment of goods across vast distances, the most efficient by far is by boat. Even though water is harder to move through than air, the resistance of water is less than the rolling friction experienced by cars; combined with the ability to carry enormous loads results in a mode of transportation that is approximately 2x more efficient than trains and 20x more efficient than trucks. Even though trucks are far less efficient than boats, they are still significantly more efficient than planes, and their ability to use roads allows them to deliver goods exactly where needed.
Planes may be the least efficient method for shipment, but they are massively beneficial with the speed of delivery. For example, a large cargo plane travelling from China to New York could make the journey in less than 24 hours (compared to an impossible route by truck, an impossible route by train, and a five-week cargo ship).
However, with all the modern advancements in technology, there are still numerous challenges faced with infrastructure. One such challenge is that roads are still the primary method for delivering goods to a specific location, but the increased use of roads is increasing journey times. This issue is amplified if time-sensitive goods (such as chemotherapy drugs) are being shipped that must be delivered and used within a specified time frame.
An alternative to road travel is using planes and helicopters, which introduces a whole other set of challenges. Helicopters are excellent for delivering time-sensitive goods from one location to another, which is why they are chosen for organ transplants and emergency patient transportation, but their large size and need for a designated helipad make them complex to integrate. Their expensive nature and need for pilots also make them difficult to operate en masse. Planes suffer from the same issues, except they require large airports to land and take off, which is even less practical.
One solution to the logistics challenges faced by time-sensitive goods is using autonomous drones that are small enough to land on rooftops and parking spaces but large enough to haul small goods and enough energy to travel vast distances. For short journeys, quadcopters make the most sense as they can take off and land vertically, but larger journeys requiring energy efficiency would benefit from small-scale winged aircraft.
But for such infrastructure to become possible, the autonomous craft must have a designated airspace lane denied to other air traffic so that autonomous systems can be simplified in design (i.e., require less advanced avoidance systems). As such, the UK Government has recently announced a £273 million funding package for the aerospace industry that includes funding for Project SkyWay.
Project SkyWay is a proposed concept that will see multiple towns and cities across the UK linked with such drone highways. These designated flight paths will allow for time-sensitive goods to be shipped using entirely autonomous drones, and the first planned journey will connect Reading, Oxford, Milton Keynes, Cambridge, and Rugby with 165 miles of space. If proven successful, the highway will be extended across the country to include islands where access to critical medicines such as Chemotherapy is limited.
The idea of drones being used for delivery has been around for decades, but this funding from the UK Government and collaboration with multiple industrial businesses could be the first genuine implementation of organised infrastructure for drones. Companies such as Amazon have talked about drone delivery for prime customers and have even prototyped such services, but they are yet to be established.
But this SkyWay project is not the first to develop the idea of frequent drone deliveries for remote locations. Earlier in 2022, Royal Mail announced that it is working on a fleet of 500 drones to ship mail to far-out locations that are too difficult for staff to traverse. The use of drones not only helps to enable fast delivery of mail but is also safer as islands far out at sea can be exposed to harsh weather that puts lives at risk.
Even places such as the Isle of Wight (which is only a few miles off the coast of England) can be challenging to deliver time-sensitive goods. As a bridge is too expensive to construct, and the fastest car ferries take an hour, drones make sense as the 4-mile journey could be traversed in 2.4 minutes, assuming a 100mph airspeed.
Overall, drones are still in their infancy, but the rapid development of autonomous systems and supporting technology will see drones become the next mode of cargo transportation.