Large-scale drone ops are already here!

Large-scale uncrewed aircraft vehicles (UAV) and beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations are already a common sight in some skies.

Zipline, a logistics company, has already clocked up more than 38 million flight miles and delivered more than 500,000 packages in Africa, for example. HHLA-Sky, a German company that sprang from a need to use drones at the Port of Hamburg, independently came up with a system that can control 100 drones simultaneously. Nuair has proven it is possible to fly from one international airport to another and is looking at crossing borders in the near future. Apian, meanwhile, is a medical drone startup, designed to deliver better healthcare for the UK’s national health service.

The point, says Conor Mullan, Managing Director, Think, is that all these companies have kept it simple and handled problems as they occurred. Mullan chaired a panel on large-scale drone operations and was struck by the approach taken.

“The companies started simple and looked at what they could do rather than what they couldn’t do,” he says.

Zipline catapults it drones into the air and uses a large net to collect them. And though this may not work in a complex urban airspace, a multitude of daily operations means the company is evolving quickly and utilising its experience to improve its service.

Crucially, the fact that drones are successfully operating at large scale builds trust in the sector as a whole.

Although much of the talk about drone operations revolves around the complexity of integration, standards and the right regulations – and these are, of course, important concerns – Mullan says the panel proved that starting with these difficult questions is perhaps not the best way forward.

“These companies had specific problems that they solved with drone operations,” he says. “And now they have successful, large-scale and BVLOS operations. There are lessons to be learned by the entire industry, which would inform a smoother path forward for UAVs.”

The panel:

Ken Stewart CEO Nuair

Okeoma Moronu, Head of Global Aviation Regulatory Affairs, Zipline

Thorsten Indra, Project Developer, HHLA Sky

Louisa Smith, Head of Aviation, Apian

Moderator: Conor Mullan, Managing Director, Think