Analysis: Airbus’ Skyways delivery drone completes first flight demo (VIDEO)

Analysis: Airbus’ Skyways delivery drone completes first flight demo (VIDEO)

Airbus’ unmanned drone delivery project, Skyways, has completed a successful demonstration flight in Singapore. A full-scale trial is pencilled in for later this year. 

For an aerospace giant with tens of billions of dollars in revenue to play with, it took a while for Airbus to get into the commercial drone sector – publicly, at least. Work on drone delivery concepts was well underway at the likes of Amazon and Google when Airbus launched the Skyways project back in February 2016.

Eager to make up for lost time, the Skyways platform has reached its first major milestone: a successful flight and delivery demonstration at the National University of Singapore.

Taking to the skies

The setting is important. Instead of trialling the technology in rural areas, Airbus is heading straight for the drone-delivery heartland. Its focus is on last-mile urban logistics, and the Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore (CAAS) has been a willing partner.

During the demo (see video below), the Skyways machine took off from a dedicated maintenance centre and landed on the roof of a parcel station. There, a parcel was loaded onto the drone using a robotic arm. The drone then took off and flew back to the maintenance centre to show off its automatic unloading capability.

Airbus’ experimental project was launched in Singapore, with the support of the CAAS, to explore the potential of urban drone delivery. The collaboration was extended in April 2017, when Singapore Post (SingPost) became the project’s logistics partner.

“Today’s flight demonstration paves the way positively to our local trial service launch in the coming months. It is the result of a very strong partnership among the stakeholders involved, especially with the close guidance and confidence from the CAAS,” said Alain Flourens, Airbus Helicopters’ executive VP of engineering and CTO.

“Safe and reliable urban air delivery is a reality not too distant into the future, and Airbus is certainly excited to be a forerunner in this endeavour.”

Read more: Airbus launches commercial drone service Airbus Aerial

Read more: Airbus and Italdesign unveil modular smart city transport

The Airbus advantage

Being an established name in aerospace has helped Airbus to trial its drone delivery technology where the action is. But key to the progress being made in Singapore is the city state’s willingness to embrace new technologies.

The importance of this cannot be overstated. Rigid regulations and a culture of fear and scepticism have already pushed Amazon Prime Air out of the US and into the UK. Add in the assistance of the National University of Singapore, and the Airbus project has been able to flourish in an ideal setting.

More trials will take place later this year to deliver packages between students and staff within the university campus, which is the size of 150 football fields.

“The Skyways project is an important innovation for the aviation industry,” said Kevin Shum, director general of CAAS. “We have been working closely with Airbus on the project, with an emphasis on co-developing systems and rules to ensure that such aircraft can operate in an urban environment safely and optimally.”

“This project will help to develop innovative rules to support the development of the unmanned aircraft industry in Singapore. We are pleased with the good progress that Skyways is making and look forward to deepening our partnership with Airbus”.

For NUS, the Skyways project is a chance to fulfil the university’s own vision of being a test bed for innovation.

“Project Skyways aligns with NUS’ vision of serving as a living lab to pilot innovative technologies and solutions,” said senior deputy president and provost, Professor Ho Teck Hua. “The NUS community is very excited to be the first in Singapore to experience this novel concept of parcel delivery by drones – an endeavour that could redefine urban logistics.

“Students from the NUS Faculty of Engineering also have the opportunity to gain valuable experience as interns with Airbus for this project. We look forward to working closely with Airbus, CAAS, and SingPost to carry out the campus-wide trial.”

There are several autonomous vehicle concepts in the works at Airbus. Skyways is currently under development alongside the Racer helicopter, the Vahana passenger drone, and the CityAirbus autonomous flying vehicle.

Internet of Business says

Supportive cultures and light-touch regulation are essential for drones and autonomous vehicles to succeed worldwide, establishing new markets and businesses.

In some nations, the aerospace authorities are known to be more conservative and to have the ears of government in suppressing unmanned flight, which hands the power to those that can take more risks. That said, many of the more conservative organisations are already managing overcrowded skies.

Despite these organisations’ worries, commercial drone delivery appears to be a matter of when, not if – along with full-scale cargo services and passenger transport. But the regulatory hurdles and technology challenges facing companies such as Amazon and Google remain significant.

Safety and security will be paramount. Cities are crowded in every direction, and autonomous, rotary-wing, battery powered devices are inherently dangerous and have multiple points of failure. Our MIT NanoMap story (link below) reveals that the technology is advancing rapidly, but a 98 percent no-crash rate is still not safe enough. We wouldn’t accept 98 per cent uptime from a cloud provider, so it’s clearly not acceptable for a drone that could kill someone.

Airbus benefits from its established aerospace reputation and the selection of Singapore as its testing ground. The closest comparison is Flytrex’s delivery service in Iceland, but Reykjavik can’t be compared to the world’s major cities in terms of scale. Elsewhere, there has been pushback to urban tests.

No doubt the full-scale trial of Skyways on the NUS campus later this year will be closely watched by Airbus’ competitors.

Read more: MIT’s NanoMap helps drones to navigate safely at high speed

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