Before the pandemic hit, there were several exciting technologies coming to fruition. While it’s hard to remember what happened before 2020, there was a certain enthusiasm in the air for drone technology. It was going to be able to do everything, from scanning buildings to delivering pizzas.
Despite the effects of the crisis, that’s still the case. As recently marked by the updated Air 2S, the technology is moving forwards all the time. Now, cargo drones are back on the agenda as a way to cheaply move goods through the air, without the need for an expensive human pilot.
Cargo drones will likely appear before publicly-available autonomous cars. That’s because the sky is a far more controlled domain than the roads. Fewer unexpected events occur in the air than they do on the ground.
For example, when you’re flying through the air at 5,000 feet, there’s no risk of a child running out into the road. There are also no roadworks to navigate or complicated signage. Once you’re in the sky, there are far fewer variables.
As a sign we’re returning to some sort of normality in the drone market, the industry is turning its attention back to its long-term plans. Investors, for instance, are piling into Xwing – a firm reportedly building fully autonomous “gate-to-gate” commercial aircraft. The aircraft will do away with pilots entirely, allowing loading operatives to simply fill the vehicle’s hold with goods and then send it to its target destination. The machine’s onboard computers will use satellite navigation, cameras and radar to chart its course, landing automatically.
As you might expect, it is a long-term project. But it could radically reduce the cost of airfreight when combined with battery cell technology.
Incredibly, the company already has a working concept. Xwing recently proved the concept with a Cessna Grand Caravan aircraft that took off and landed by itself in California with no human pilot. Had it not been for coronavirus news, this achievement would surely have been front page news.
The team behind the project talked to the media about how they got to this place. The company, the CEO said, has made significant improvements in refining the onboard flight technology over the last year or so. Now, he says, the system can integrate with aircraft control signals, allowing it to interact with controllers like any other aircraft. In other words, the aircraft slots into existing systems and doesn’t have any annoying special requirements that could slow deployment.
The aircraft can respond to ground control in much the same way as a commercial pilot. For instance, Xwing says that it will be able to perform taxing functions while on the runway. It’ll also be able to circle around in the air indefinitely, waiting for a landing spot.
The funding for these drones is also returning to pre-pandemic levels. Xwing, for instance, says that investors are plowing hundreds of millions of dollars into the enterprise, hoping that the technology will allow for the building of planes that essentially fly themselves.
The cost savings here are quite dramatic. Not having to use pilots could reduce the price of international air freight by billions of dollars per year. However, to call the technology a genuine economic breakthrough might not be accurate. That’s because the majority of the cost of air travel comes from the price of fuel and the wear and tear on the aircraft itself. Some Boeing commercial aircraft, for instance, can cost more than $100 million.
The real breakthrough in this technology will likely arise when companies combine it with battery technology. Once you power aircraft with electricity, the cost of energy falls by more than 90 percent – and so does the cost of maintenance. Fixing an electrically-powered jet engine is far simpler than doing so for the kerosene equivalent. There are far fewer moving parts to worry abou.
Xwing is only one of a number of firms experimenting with radically new aviation technology. Other heavyweights, such as Airbus and Boeing, are also trying to build autonomous flight systems. Whether these systems will perform in the long-term, however, remains to be seen. Both major manufacturers are having to build their autonomy teams from the inside out, instead of importing expertise externally. And that means that progress could still be many years away.
Windcopter recently told the press that it was conducting trials of an electrical fixed-wing vertical take off and landing craft for drone delivery. The vehicle makes use of the latest battery technology to get the weight down enough to allow it to fly. Initially, it will only deliver light products to households in large cities. But if the technology improves enough, it may be able to deliver much larger items over a longer distance.
Another company called SF Express, based in China, says that it plans to have more than 1,000 autonomous drones in the air by the end of the decade. It’s unmanned systems, it says, will be able to overcome many of the natural barriers to deliver in rural provinces. It’ll be able to fly over mountains and rivers, negating the need to damage the environment by building a road through it.