Trials set to begin in September and commercial runs early next year of the 2.2-tonne freight payload UAVs, which promise to ‘totally change the landscape of the logistics industry in Indonesia’.
Indonesian airline Garuda has unveiled plans to purchase 100 cargo drones within five years to deliver freight with payloads of up to 2.2 tonnes from 30 logistics centres to the archipelago’s 18,000 islands, with trials set to begin in September and commercial runs early next year.
According to a report by Bloomberg that quoted the state-run carrier’s director for cargo and business development, Mohammad Iqbal, the unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) will be procured from China’s Beihang UAS Technology, without putting a figure on investment costs. Assembled locally under licence from Beihang, the drones will have a wingspan of 18 metres, a range of 1,200 kilometres, and a cargo capacity of 2.2 tonnes and are said to cost about 30% less than conventional cargo aircraft.
Separate units are be set up for the operation of the UAVs and also the logistics centres, each of which will be equipped with an airstrip.
“This will totally change the landscape of the logistics industry in Indonesia,” Iqbal claimed. “The outlook for the cargo business in Indonesia is not just good, but very good.”
Garuda will begin trials with three drones in the eastern part of the country, starting in September and lasting until the end of the year. Commercial runs will start early next year in the Maluku islands with the drones flying seafood to Garuda’s cargo hub in Makassar for onward shipping to Hong Kong and Singapore.
Delivering cargo to outlying areas of the world’s biggest archipelago continues to be a major logistics challenge, which the proposed drone service could help address. Despite massive investments in roads and bridges during President Joko Widodo’s first term of office, many parts of Indonesia remain inaccessible, particularly the eastern fringes – such as Papua island, whose difficult mountainous terrain makes ground transportimpossible or uneconomical.
However, Garuda’s UAV freight project does have its critics, with Bloomberg’s report quoting Jakarta-based aviation expert Gerry Soejatman, who raised questions about its feasibility: “We (Indonesia) don’t have the infrastructure in place for a drone-delivery ecosystem. The government needs to set up the routes, the operational area, as well as the infrastructure to pinpoint their location so the air traffic controllers know where they are.”
Although a number of companies, including postal and express operators and e-commerce innovators such as Amazon, have for some time been trialling drone delivery of small shipments of up to 2kg, mostly using quad-copter or ‘hobby drone’ type technology, unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology capable of carrying heavy cargo loads have obviously been more challenging to develop. But several projects now have significant momentum and are set to begin real-world air cargo operations.
Astral Aerial Solutions, a subsidiary of African cargo airline group Astral Aviation, is in the process of setting up a drone operation in East Africa, having already conducted some successful test flights using the Flyox cargo drone, designed by Spain’s Singular Aircraft, which can carry a cargo payload of almost 2 tonnes over a range of up to 1,200 km. It is also exploring the use of a small aid drone able to carry a 10 kg payload, and the medium-sized Falcon F250 drone, able to carry up to 250 kg of cargo over a distance of around 150 km.
Meanwhile, US company Sabrewing has been working on developing two different sized vertical-takeoff drones and has the backing of a paying commercial customer that has signed up for a number of units. The Rhaegal is designed to carry a cargo payload of up to 350 kg over distances of up to 360 nautical miles (670 km); the Wyvern is designed to carry a payload of two tonnes over a range of up to 800 nautical miles. It has received permission to start test flying in 2019, and expects to start carrying full payloads in 2020, but does not expect full certification of the aircraft until 2023.
Elsewhere in the US, other models are also under development, including an ambitious plan by US-based Natilus to develop a 100-tonne cargo payload drone. Although the emergence of that particular vehicle is still several years away, the company is also working on three other types, with payloads of 0.3 tonnes, 3.4 tonnes, and 60 tonnes, respectively.
Natilus already has a 0.3 tonne prototype that it has just begun testing in the San Francisco bay area, with FAA approval. The 10-metre “technology demonstrator” aims to “prove key technologies needed to start construction of the 3.4 tonne vehicle”.
The 3.4 tonne payload vehicle is being developed for the integrator market and is next in the development pipeline. Indeed, the company already has an agreement from one of the major integrators to purchase multiple units of the aircraft and says Astral has also signed a letter of intent to purchase the 3.4 tonne vehicle.