Drone Logistics in Airports
Not too long ago, airports were focused on keeping drones out of their airspace. Today, this stance has dramatically shifted, and unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are now welcomed and eagerly incorporated within airport infrastructures. Quick, dependable, and effective drone delivery is ushering in a new era in supply chain logistics, and airports are seizing the opportunity to energize their operations.
Although incorporating drone delivery into airport ecosystems poses unique challenges, technological advancements are poised to address them. We’ll explore the merits of deploying drones in an airport setting, the technological advancements fueling this innovation, and a pioneering program in Canada that's leading the way.
Airport sites cover large distances, and drone deliveries offer a compelling solution to logistical operations by facilitating speedy deliveries to airport properties and third parties. Traditionally, the last leg of the supply chain has been fraught with issues like traffic congestion, parking restrictions, and inefficient routes, often leading to excessive costs and time delays.
Drone technology is one option to effectively tackle the notorious challenges of last-mile delivery. Deploying drones for direct package deliveries from airports facilitates the timely dispatch of crucial items such as pharmaceuticals or medical equipment and rises to meet soaring consumer expectations.
Reduced Carbon Footprint
Integrating drone delivery into the airport logistics system gives businesses across diverse sectors a pathway toward greener operations. Powered by clean energy sources, small drones not only use less fuel and produce fewer gas emissions than traditional delivery vehicles but also relieve road congestion. Choosing drones over traditional delivery methods helps eco-conscious businesses put a stake in the ground and send a clear signal of commitment to meeting their sustainability goals.
Enhanced Intermodal Connectivity
Drones can greatly improve intermodal shipping operations, which involve cargo being transferred from one mode of transport to another. This process bypasses separate warehousing stages and drives efficiency in modern supply chains, especially for last-mile logistics. Drone integration into airports adds another layer of agility to logistics operations, effectively connecting different delivery methods for a more streamlined supply chain.
Hub and Spoke Environments
Establishing a drone delivery hub in an airport environment unlocks a wealth of new opportunities. Linking traditional air freight with drone infrastructure enables the servicing of a wide spectrum of local industries with express deliveries, both to industrial sites and consumer doorsteps, while reducing the pressure on local road networks. This enhances local infrastructure, attracts new industries to the region, and fosters economic growth.
The impact extends beyond local reach. Through interconnecting airports, drone hubs can create a logistical network that could potentially span countries and continents and transform logistics nationally and internationally. This powerful new solution possesses the potential to redefine standard logistics as we know it today.
Cost efficiency is one of the factors driving the adoption of drone delivery in modern logistics systems. Drones offer an efficient way to transport cargo from point A to B, from reducing fuel consumption to minimizing labor costs. The integration of drone infrastructure into airports amplifies these efficiencies. For example, an airport hub model with drone capabilities eliminates the need for a separate storage solution, such as a warehouse or distribution depot, and all the associated maintenance, energy, and security costs.
Working Within Regulatory Hurdles
A primary obstacle confronting the drone industry, both within and beyond the airport environment, is the thorny issue of regulation. The drone regulatory landscape remains a work in progress. For instance, the Federal Aviation Administration in the US has yet to lay down standardized rules governing the operation of delivery drones, choosing instead to grant one-off waivers to operators on a case-by-case basis. This approach has led to an industry-wide demand for a comprehensive regulatory framework that would fuel innovation in the sector.
Developing robust regulations through a collaborative dialogue involving all stakeholders is vital to ensuring the safe navigation of manned and unmanned aircraft in shared airspace. Canada is leading the way in this domain and made a landmark move in June 2023 by being one of the first countries to propose regulations for Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operations, garnering significant approval from key players in the drone industry.
Integrating Unmanned Aircraft Systems Traffic Management into existing Air Traffic Management (ATM) systems is imperative to fully realize the potential of drone delivery as a robust logistics solution. Traditional air traffic control systems, reliant on tools such as radar, may not always effectively track the new generation of unmanned aerial vehicles. Additionally, air traffic controllers should be able to manage traditional manned aircraft traffic without the interference of small drones appearing on their screens.
All stakeholders must collaborate to establish effective communication protocols that enable seamless coordination between drones, manned aircraft, and ground operations. Advanced communication systems that enable safe and compliant BVLOS operations are instrumental in making this possible.
Addressing Safety Concerns
Safety risks associated with drones operating in airport airspace cannot be overlooked. Their small size makes drones hard to spot for pilots of manned aircraft, triggering concerns about possible mid-air collisions. Risks extend to potential crashes into airport structures or ground, threatening public safety. Furthermore, drones can disrupt navigation systems, communication networks, and air traffic control systems.
Stringent regulations, best practice protocols, proper training, and the latest anti-collision and communication technologies must be implemented to protect manned aircraft and the public.
Turning Challenges into Opportunities
The UK's Gatwick Airport incident in 2018 serves as a potent reminder of the consequences of unregulated drone use in airport airspace. Multiple drone sightings led to a shutdown lasting more than a day during a peak travel period, affecting 140,000 passengers across 1,000 flights.
This incident prompted the UK government to tighten regulations around airports and invest in new surveillance systems to detect drones in the airspace. These innovative surveillance systems now pave the way for safer and regulated airport drone use. According to the Airports Council International, technologies originally developed to counter unauthorized drones are being repurposed to facilitate controlled drone operations in airports.
Drone delivery has the potential to radically transform airport logistics. A glimpse into the technological advancements powering this revolution reveals some exciting innovations.
Beyond Visual Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) Operations
Drones operating beyond the pilot's visual line-of-sight represent the future of drone operations. This capability allows drones to travel greater distances and significantly extend their range. New technology, from real-time tracking systems to sophisticated communication tools, makes this feasible, elevating drone operation standards and enhancing safety across all environments, including airports.
Detect and Avoid Technology
Busy skies present plenty of hazards for delivery drones, and airports are awash with potential obstacles. Manned aircraft are the most obvious threat, but birds, control towers, and airport buildings can also pose a collision risk. Cutting-edge detect and avoid technology uses a combination of sensors, cameras, LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging), and radar to detect and avoid obstacles during flight, ensuring safe navigation through airport airspace.
Gathering information is just one half of the equation; drones also need artificial intelligence tools to interpret this information. Sophisticated algorithms enable unmanned aerial vehicles to make real-time decisions, adapt to changing weather conditions, and optimize flight paths. Equipped with the latest AI tools, the new delivery drone generation is perfectly positioned to conduct safe and compliant flights that enhance airport logistics.
Drone Delivery in Action
While drone deliveries hold tremendous potential to transform airport logistics in the future, it is already a reality in Canada. In May 2022, Delivery Drone Canada’s (DDC) groundbreaking project with Edmonton International Airport (EIA) became commercially operational, transporting cargo within and around the airport.
A successful collaboration between DDC and EIA, Apple Express Courier Ltd., and Ziing, the project has won an XCELLENCE Award for innovation from the Association for Unscrewed Vehicles Systems International and provided a showcase for drone delivery services in an airport environment. In June 2023, DDC was granted an extension to the project and is working with EIA, the fifth-largest airport in Canada by passenger numbers, to develop the next phase of drone delivery routes and expand the operation further.
DDC is at the forefront of drone delivery logistics and is committed to safety and innovation. A publicly-traded and award-winning drone technology company, we launched in 2014 and offer a complete drones-as-a-service solution for governments and companies across sectors, including oil and gas, mining and pharmaceuticals, and airports.
Our turnkey platform covers industrial-grade hardware, automated depots, and a proprietary software system, FLYTE. This system includes tools such as real-time package tracking and delivery notifications, scheduling, and temperature monitoring logs for temperature-sensitive cargo. FLYTE is easily integrated with internal software systems via APIs to incorporate airport drone delivery into your operations.
To find out more about our industry-leading logistics solutions and discover how our drone delivery infrastructure can power your business, contact us today.