Supplying the drone tech future

From traffic management systems to delivery services and military applications, the use of drone or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) technology is becoming more widespread. As new entrants trial and launch new products and services and they become cheaper and more widely accessible, businesses across industry sectors are proactively considering the benefits this emerging tech could bring for them.

There is a risk that some businesses are waiting for the ‘buzz’ around drone tech innovation to settle back before deciding where and how to invest. However, taking this approach could mean they are already falling behind their competitors. Instead, businesses should be seeking out opportunities to collaborate with innovators in order to find new ways of developing the technology in a way that could drive value across the supply chain by improving efficiency, streamlining inventory systems and enhancing employee safety.

One of the main areas of opportunity for drone tech application is in the logistics and distribution sector; addressing the challenge of last mile fulfilment. In a move designed to accelerate progress in this area, the US Government has recently announced plans to streamline the applications process for drone experiments and pave the way for city and state leaders to partner with drone operators. For companies such as Amazon and Google, this development could soon see them partnering with individual towns and cities across America to test package delivery services.

Drone deliveries are already happening of course. Amazon Prime drone deliveries have been undergoing trials for some time and JD.com has been piloting similar services in China. Drone deliveries are also used regularly to drop urgent supplies into areas hit by natural disasters, most recently following the spate of hurricanes and tropical storms in the Caribbean. Further demonstrating their efficiency in hard-to-reach areas, the parcel delivery business, UPS, has partnered with the Rwanda Government, vaccine alliance, Gavi and drone manufacturer, Zipline, to deliver vital blood supplies to patients across the country. Similarly, drones are helping to improve safety in military combat zones by transporting important equipment and supplies directly to front-line troops.

The hype around UAVs shows no sign of letting up, with some high-profile demonstrations taking place in technology hot spots around the world – the latest example being the demonstration of Uber’s drone taxi service in Dubai in September. Another high-profile initiative is a major infrastructure project taking place in Qatar ahead of the 2022 FIFA World Cup. In this instance, drones fitted with 3DR’s ‘SiteScan’ software are being used to complete land surveys accurately and quickly; speeding up the construction of a new Orbital Highway.

The development of drone technology has been particularly fast paced in the UK too, supported by Government incubator initiatives such as The Catapult Programme. There are also a large volume of mid-tier aerospace and electronics manufacturers based in Britain, many of which have an active interest in the development of drone technology. In order to capitalise on this rich seam of technological capability, it is vital that Government support continues and further commitment to research funding in this area is required ahead of Brexit.

Forward thinking

As more development takes place, drone technology has become much cheaper and easier to access and to some extent this is helping to address public concerns about safety. The more we see and hear about drones being used to capture great photographic images or help skydivers to get airborne, the more likely we are to accept their role in society.

If safety concerns are going to be properly addressed however, regulations and controls are urgently needed. Earlier this year, the Government announced plans to introduce drone registration and safety awareness tests for all users. It is also considering making electronic identification and tracking part of the registration process, so it becomes easier to spot potential misuse. These new measures are expected to take effect next year and in the meantime, the Civil Aviation Authority’s ‘drone code’ provides advice and guidance. The urgent need for intelligent safety systems is inspiring innovation activity and the Defense Contract Audit Agency (DCAA) recently launched its Sky Commander Tracking Programme in the UAE, which is capable of tracking the flight paths of registered drones. When combined with a mandatory registration system, this technology would be able to track all drone flights.

In order to take advantage of drone technology and the benefits it could bring to industry supply chains, businesses must first understand their unique value. OEMs and tier one manufacturers for example, have an opportunity to act as tech integrators; collaborating with others to develop applications that will deliver value across the supply chain. In the aerospace sector, OEMs such as Boeing and Airbus already act as systems integrators and are therefore well placed to initiate such collaborations. However, in some ways this activity may not feel familiar as it could involve reaching out to emerging tech-led businesses with a cross-industry focus that are now moving into the field.

To become an effective tech integrator, businesses should empower their procurement teams to seek out opportunities to invest in tech development projects and stay alert to new areas of research and development activity taking place. Depending on the size and structure of the business, it may be necessary to continue to leverage core assets to the full while this strategic investment is underway.

In some instances, there may be some hesitancy about when and how to get involved in developing drone technologies. However, businesses that choose to wait until the pathway in terms of preferred technologies or until security or regulatory issues have been ironed out could lose out on a significant early mover advantage. Ultimately, this could undermine the company’s competitiveness in the future. Regardless of where in the supply chain drone technologies are most beneficial, it is important to keep sight of the added value they could bring for the end user – if in doubt, this should provide the drive needed to collaborate.

Making the most of drone technology will require forward thinking and proactivity if businesses are going to succeed in finding applications that bring efficiencies for the supply chain and deliver a better product or service for end users.

Paul Adams, head of aerospace at management consultancy, Vendigital
Image source: Shutterstock/violetkaipa