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The Delivery Chain is about to take off … literally

This drone has been designed to take off and land vertically using electric powered propeller and to move from A to B using a gas powered propeller, It can lift and carry up to 500 pounds of goods. Image credit: Elroy Air

Drones are becoming a familiar sight more and more, but the ones we get to see are pretty small (actually the ads are emphasising their reduced size – you can put it in your backpack, it can fit on your hand…). There are a whole different categories of drones, designed for military application that are big but we don’t get to see them.

A new category of drones is now lifting off for testing: they are targeting the delivery chain, they aim at providing a more efficient way to carry goods from A to B.

One of the companies that is claiming to be “almost” ready is Elroy Air. They have developed, and are now testing, a drone using four electrically powered propeller to take off and land (vertically) using a space equivalent to the one that can accommodate 6 parked cars. Once it has become airborne it hands ove the propulsion to a fifth propeller using gas that can cover a distance up to 300 miles (500 km). This approach makes sense because it uses electricity for the heaviest part of the trip (lifting off is what really takes up power) and then relies on gas power to over long distances without running the risk of depleted batteries (landing is not big deal in terms of power consumption).

Cleary a drone would make delivery very effective time-wise. More surprisingly to many, it would also make delivery more effective power-wise. As a matter of fact, flying is about 15% more expensive (in terms of power) than moving on the ground. In flying and moving on ground you have to fight drag and drag is way bigger on ground than in the air (you are using air mostly for lift). The additional power expense is to counteract gravity and that applies to flight only (unless your car goes uphill). All in all it is just 15% more expensive in terms of power required. However, on ground you are likely to spend some 50% more power (statistically) because you are not taking the shortest route from A to B, because you have to stop and then accelerate, and because you seldom travel at an optimal speed (from the point of view of your car engine effectiveness). Hence, in the end flying is also more power efficient that driving!

The Elroy drone has been designed with a load capacity of 500 pounds (around 220 kg) which makes it interesting in managing second tier distribution legs. The drone would lift off with its cargo from harbours and airports and deliver to a local warehouse where it will be unloaded and the goods dispatched via ground means (including robots on wheels) for the final delivery.

Elroy have devised a smart way to load the cargo, basically the cargo is stored in a special container, the drone lifts off and hoovers on place to grab the right container that is lifted up to become a single part with the drone. Likewise at the point of arrival.

They are planning to test their drone during 2019, seeking the airworthiness certificate and start commercial operation in 2020. So let’s get acquainted with the idea of spotting bigger drones over our heads in a short while.

This progress is fuelled by advances in many areas, material technology, electrical motors and most importantly artificial intelligence making the drone a reliable fully autonomous vehicle.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. He's currently the Chair of the Symbiotic Autonomous Systems Initiative of IEEE-FDC. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and up to September 2018 he was the Head of the EIT Digital Industrial Doctoral School. Previously, up to December 2011, he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the Industry Advisory Board within the Future Directions Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books. He writes a daily blog,  http://sites.ieee.org/futuredirections/category/blog/, with commentary on innovation in various technology and market areas.

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