Cargo drones tackle the middle mile

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Research, development, and testing of large-cargo aerial drones—those capable of carrying more than just a few pounds of freight—continues around the world, but one European company is close to making commercial delivery operations a reality.

Cargo drone airline Dronamics will provide remotely controlled drone deliveries with its Cessna-sized Black Swan aircraft for Qatar Airways Cargo, in a partnership the companies announced late last year. The deal expands the reach of both airlines and furthers Dronamics’ goal of providing middle-mile logistics service that company leaders say not only speeds delivery and reduces costs but also gives remote and underserved locations around the world access to more frequent deliveries.

“[We] connect smaller places that may not have direct transport links,” says Severina Grozeva, global communications director for London-based Dronamics, which was founded by two brothers from Bulgaria in 2014 and maintains offices in the country’s capital, Sofia. Grozeva explains that the drones can land in small, unpaved areas that are unreachable by larger aircraft. “[The drones] will land at a small airport, regional airport, airfields. Eventually, we have plans for them to land near [warehouses] and manufacturing facilities.”

She adds that the drones can get a “meaningful” amount of cargo to remote locations for subsequent delivery to homes and businesses, explaining that the middle-mile drones deliver cargo “close to the business and close to the consumer, but not in your backyard.” 

Dronamics expects to begin delivering for Qatar Airways Cargo later this year—first in Greece, where they will connect Athens with customers in the country’s northern industrial area as well as the islands in the south. 

COVERING MORE DISTANCE

To date, most of the headway in drone delivery has been made in last-mile logistics, delivering small orders of retail merchandise or medicine to customers’ homes. Walmart has made strides in this area, announcing in January an expansion of its drone delivery program in Texas; the service will reach nearly 2 million households in the Dallas-Fort Worth area by the end of this year. Last-mile drones have also gotten traction in health care, delivering medicines, blood samples, and vaccines to medical facilities around the world. Autonomous delivery company Zipline expanded its work in that area in February, in a partnership with WellSpan Health in Pennsylvania. In both cases, the solutions offer small autonomous or remotely controlled airborne vehicles capable of delivering a few pounds of cargo up to a few hundred miles.

Dronamics’ planned service is different in size and scope. The Black Swan middle-mile drone can deliver 770 pounds of cargo up to 1,550 miles. Its fuselage is maximized for freight—it has no cockpit, giving the drone a maximum storage capacity of 125 cubic feet. Essentially, it holds about the same amount as a small delivery van, Grozeva explains. Technicians control the drones via a remote cockpit. The system requires a short runway for takeoff and landing, about 1,300 feet—paved or not. The idea is that the service will eliminate the need to use multiple trucks and vans to transport freight, replacing them with a service that can get the cargo closer to the consumer, faster. 

Dronamics says its drones can deliver cargo up to 80% faster, 50% cheaper, and with up to 60% lower emissions than traditional modes of transportation, including air freight. The Black Swan runs on a conventional engine, but its frame and size help make it more fuel-efficient, Grozeva says, adding that the company is working toward using sustainable fuels, including biofuel, hydrogen, and synthetic-based formulations. 

The company has been testing its drones for a few years and launched its first full-scale flight in 2023. Early customers include freight forwarders and logistics service providers— Germany’s Hellmann Worldwide Logistics and global package delivery service DHL are two examples—but Grozeva says Dronamics also plans to work directly with companies and brands that move large volumes of cargo. The agreement with Qatar Airways Cargo is its first partnership with an international airline—and Dronamics claims it’s an industry first as well.

DEMOCRATIZING DELIVERY

Air freight represents a small portion of the total cargo moved around the world annually, but leaders at Dronamics say middle-mile cargo drones will help broaden that market. On top of that, they say middle-mile drones can bring next-day delivery to more people in more places around the world, which will benefit those in less-developed regions as well as those in remote areas—like the Greek islands, where many businesses and consumers receive only weekly deliveries of essential goods, via ferry, much of the year.

“There are a lot of geographies like that,” Grozeva explains. “People say to us, ‘This is a great solution for the less-developed world’ … but there is a lot of opportunity in the developed world as well.”

Dronamics refers to its business proposition as “enabling same-day delivery to everyone, everywhere.” 

Although Dronamics’ work has focused on Europe to date, the company is currently testing its service through a DHL partnership in Australia and eventually plans to break into the U.S. market. 

Market trends may help make those goals a reality. The delivery drone market is expected to grow considerably over the next several years, by some estimates reaching a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of around 40% by 2030—driven largely by demand for faster, more sustainable delivery as well as advances in drone technology. Small, last-mile delivery drones will make up the bulk of the growth, but drones that can transport heavier loads are making strides as well. A 2023 report from Allied Market Research points to the integration of cargo drones into middle-mile logistics as a key trend moving forward.

“Improvements in battery technology, sensors, machine learning algorithms, and materials have enhanced the capability of cargo drones,” according to the report. “With longer flight times, heavier payloads, and greater autonomy, cargo drones have become more efficient and effective than traditional delivery methods.”

Leaders at Dronamics agree.

“[This is] still considered a niche market,” Grozeva says, emphasizing the long-term potential of middle-mile drones. “But it’s interesting in terms of what it can do to help businesses become more competitive.”



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