Could “Middle Mile” Cargo Drones Be the Wave of the Future?

Do American consumers really need their store purchases from outlets like Amazon and Walmart delivered to their backyards by drone?  Polls suggest that many US consumers are skeptical of the idea, viewing it as something of a gimmick.  Last month, residents of  Glendale, Arizona – where Walmart just launched a pilot delivery service – expressed concerns over the safety and noise issues that the company’s low-level overflights already pose to their communities. Amazon has previously faced similar concerns in the two small towns where its own aerial drone deliveries have just gotten underway.  The two companies, anxious to expand their deliveries, which show genuine promise, are doing their best to address these concerns.

In fact, the jury is still out on whether the two companies can overcome public skepticism – to say nothing of long-standing logistical and regulatory obstacles – to expanding their services nationwide.

But cargo drone deliveries may well be another matter.  Part of the reason is that these deliveries mainly involve business-to-business shipments and address long-standing supply chain bottlenecks as well as the high costs of more traditional freight shipping.   But just as important are the logistics involved.  Black Swan, the cargo drone manufactured by Bulgaria-based Dromatics, will fly at 20,000 feet and deliver packages weighing as much as 770 pounds to airstrips and regional and local distribution centers, avoiding more intrusive residential deliveries.

Another company, this one US-based (El Roy Air in San Francisco), has just announced the launch of a new cargo drone it calls the “Chaparral.”  The company has partnered with the Dublin-based firm, LCI, which services a worldwide medical relief supply network, with hundreds of clients.  LCI traditionally makes its deliveries with small fixed wing aircraft and helicopters but by switching to drones can save on fuel and pilot costs, while enhancing sustainability.  Moreover, the Chaparral is an electric Vertical Takeoff and Landing (eVTOL) vehicle that can facilitate deliveries to remote rural areas without airstrips.  In some of these areas, landings on hilltops or in ravines would pose a high safety risk even to helicopters.  Pilotless drones, with their superior maneuverability, are an ideal substitute.

LCI has agreed to purchase the first 20 Chaparrals based on advanced orders from its clients; however, the total package could eventually be worth $100 million.  Dave Merrill, Elroy Air’s CEO, recently told Forbes magazine: “We’re going to be starting to operate systems with some customers next year and the year after, and then we’re expecting to deliver to LCI continuously in a few years.”

Chaparral was first tested back in August 2019.  Its latest model, the Chaparral C1, can carry cargo weighing 500 pounds over a range of 300 nautical miles for several hours.  That far exceeds the flight duration, range and payload capacity of the “last mile” package delivery drones deployed by Amazon and Walmart.

Some industry analysts believe that long-distance cargo drones – which some refer to as “middle mile” drones, because road vehicles and human cargo handlers may be involved on the front and back end of deliveries – might one day overshadow the use of smaller package delivery drones, especially for business-to-business shipments.

Larger drones might also become instrumental in disaster relief, firefighting and other public safety missions.  With additional payload capacity, cargo drones can deliver blankets, life-preservers or food supplies to disaster relief victims or be equipped to drop large volumes of water on raging wildfires.  Eventually, they might also be configured to speed medics and other emergency personnel to disaster victims or to transport disaster and accident victims to local hospitals.

Not all industry observers believe that cargo drones are the wave of the future.  After extensive testing, Walmart and Amazon have received approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to conduct their pilot operations in dozens of US cities while cargo drones are still awaiting similar approval.  Moreover, it is unclear whether large cargo drones can adapt to the retail consumer market to facilitate deliveries of  food and home supplies to residential homes or backyards.  The debate over which drone delivery system can more rapidly “scale up” to meet the demands of a complex and evolving drone market is likely to continue for some time.

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