They can save time, money, and potentially lives, by going to the places that put people at risk. It’s only a matter of time before they really take off

Over a brief period back in early 2018, an experiment to deliver medicines to remote areas of East Africa took off. Vertically, in fact, thanks to a so-called parcel drone project developed by DHL, the German development agency GIZ and the flight specialist startup Wingcopter.

The project recorded more than 180 take-offs and landings with a flight record of more than 2,200km gained from roughly 2,000 minutes in the air between the mainland and an island in Lake Victoria.

It was an ideal setting for such an experiment. Medical care for the 400,000, largely albino, people who live on Ukerewe – Africa’s largest lake island – was severely limited, thanks to the poor infrastructure and extremely difficult terrain. Experts estimated journeys of six hours could be cut to around 40 minutes, thereby making it possible to provide emergency medication or to quickly refill cool chain commodities that went out of stock.

Another benefit cited by DHL at the time was that, after delivering its cargo, the tiny craft could easily be loaded with blood and laboratory samples to take back to the mainland. In future, they said, the Parcelcopter could not only improve logistics in the public health sector: it had the potential to help prevent crises worldwide, for example allowing an early response to slow the spread of viral diseases such as Ebola.

Last September, a drone made a test flight to deliver medicines from Trikala in the northwestern region of Greece to a pharmacy in Leptokarya, a village with a population of 200 a mere three kilometers away. DHL also planned to use a so-called unmanned Parcelcopter to deliver drugs and other urgent supplies to the tiny remote island of Juist in the North Sea, a few miles off the coast of Germany. The trial project was granted a restricted airspace for the 12km trip by the German ministry of transport. Juist is accessed only by a once-daily ferry service and regular passenger flights.

The drone will take off from the harbour in Norddeich and be collected by a DHL courier who would deliver the medicines to the island’s pharmacy. More recently, and with a greater corporate focus, a drone developed by Wingcopter, became the vital link between Merck’s research centre in Darmstadt, Germany, and their analytical laboratories and production facilities in Gernsheim, 25km away, replacing trucks as the delivery method for specialist samples. Again, the key issue here was one of delays, especially where time-sensitive research was concerned. Waiting for set slots for sample transport – and the carbon emissions and road congestion involved – wasn’t viable. Sylke Klein, a scientist in their Electronics business sector, explained: “Wingcopter was part of our Accelerator program at that time. Up until the time we met, they had this great technology but hadn’t found many applications for it. I immediately felt the delivery drone was the perfect solution to our internal logistics issues.”

UAVS and their role in chemical processing`

In partnership with Frankfurt University of Applied Sciences, they applied to use a specific flight route between the sites to fly a fully automated delivery drone and in February 2020, the Wingcopter – a craft capable of 150km/h in fixed-wing mode – made its maiden voyage – in just 17 minutes.  Significantly, the flight was also fully automated – only directed by a pre-programmed route and monitored via groundstation software and a mobile app. At the time, it was hailed as the very first drone flight beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) at this distance in Germany. The successful first flight, noted the company, marked a milestone in the history of unmanned aviation and internal logistics. The project team hopes it will serve as a role model for similar projects throughout the world.

The rise of unmanned aerial vehicles – or UAVs – has been beneficial to the chemical and chemical processing industry for some time. They have helped plant operators to monitor critical infrastructure, make more informed decisions and achieve accurate, efficient and quick results without putting staff at risk.

Adam Serblowski, Robotics Theme Lead at Shell, summarised the situation succinctly when he spoke to the Process Worldwide online portal, telling them: “Drones have delivered millions in dollars in savings and eliminated tens of thousands of hours of HSSE (Health, Safety, Security and Environment) exposure to work at height and in confined spaces. Shell now looks to extend this value by embedding drones into assets so they can support missions for high frequency/low impact activities which will complete the journey of drones from ad-hoc tool to a critical piece of infrastructure.”

And Marc Gandillon, head of marketing at Flyability of Lausanne, Switzerland, is on record describing the overall savings achieved from reduced downtime, lower operation costs, and increased quality and quantity of data as “enormous”, citing one customer as saving $500,000 with a single inspection.

“Preventing human exposure to dangerous situations like confined spaces entry and work at height is definitely the most compelling benefit of using drone technology.” He added: “Adopting drone technology has a non-negligible implementation cost. This includes equipment acquisition and maintenance, user training, and any changes that have to be made to the inspection process itself to allow for the use of new equipment/technology. However, having drone technology in your asset maintenance operations is a mindset. You know you’ll save someone’s life down the road and, with the proper involvement in your drone program, you will improve your figures.”

Substantial investment has elevated the Swiss drone market to fourth place globally in absolute terms and made it the number one on a per capita basis with a projected growth rate of 10.6 per cent CAGR. In Germany, a recent report estimated that there were around 430,700 drones flying, although only 45,200 on a commercial basis. Even so, they account for €738M – 87.86 per cent of the total drone-related revenue in the country.

And unlike the -1.4 per cent CAGR decline projected in the recreational market, the commercial sector is expected to grow at a rate of 14.5 per cent for the next four years. Experts predict part of that will be down to a rise in the number of passenger drones, even though the sector is not expected to not reach any serious profitability until sometime during the course of the next decade.

As long ago as May 2020, the Federal Ministry of Transport and Digital Infrastructure unveiled an action plan entitled “Unmanned Aircraft Systems and Innovative Aviation Strategies” which outlined the key aspects of the future regulation of drones and air taxis.

The global market for Unmanned Aircraft services was estimated at the time to be worth an estimated $127 billion annually and the European Parliament predicted that civil drone technology could account for approximately 10 per cent of the EU’s aviation market in the next ten years.

For its part, the federal government wants Germany to become a lead market for the development of new innovative drone technology while establishing high safety standards. It sees considerable potential for services in particular in transportation, surveying, media production, security and law enforcement, civil protection in the event of emergencies or natural disasters, agriculture, the energy supply industry, distribution logistics as well as the provision of goods and services to rural or remote, difficult-to-access areas.

Their operation has long been regulated by the Civil Aviation Act (Luftverkehrsgesetz) and the country’s own air traffic regulations. Operators need a licence to fly them above a specific weight, at night or over certain areas. Anything taking off weighing more than 0.25kg requires markings, and those exceeding 2kg needs a certificate of knowledge, although such national rules are increasingly being superseded by wider EU rules.

The Downsides of going up

Drones offer pharma inspectors, in particular, access to high-quality visual data, thanks to their ability to pick out minute details, along with strong stabilisation and unique lighting features to let pilots hone in on important details, something that would otherwise require an inspector, for example, to get inside a tank.  The modern indoor drone has an ability to access tight, confined spaces and, because they tend to be surrounded by protective cages, giving them high collision tolerance, they can strike surfaces and continue flying.

But health regulators have expressed concerns in terms of consignment security and patient data. Maintaining the integrity of what it is transporting can present difficulties, particularly in terms of biologics such as insulin and vaccines which can be sensitive to temperature, humidity, and vibration. And while it’s possible to install onboard environmental systems, they would contribute to the drone’s weight, reducing its overall payload capacity and potentially risking regulation non-compliance. But such issues are all part of progress.