Every month we select one logistics startup which represents a positive example of innovation in logistics and has the potential to alter the way the industry operates. This month, Transmetrics selected DRONAMICS, the innovative unmanned cargo plane manufacturer, as the May “Logistics Startup of the Month” for its exceptional progress in adopting new technologies for the emerging logistics markets. In order to learn more about the company and what they do, we talked with Svilen Rangelov, a co-founder of DRONAMICS, and asked him several questions about the business and the industry.
First of all, congratulations on becoming the Logistics Startup of the Month! Can we start by briefly introducing our readers to DRONAMICS and your Black Swan project? Can you explain how did you get to the idea of a small unmanned cargo plane?
Thank you for the nomination! At DRONAMICS we’re building a next-generation cargo airplane – small, unmanned and extremely fuel efficient. It can transport 350 kg (770 lbs) at a distance of 2,500 km (1,550 miles) cheaper than any aircraft in existence, making it ideal for e-commerce in emerging markets. We got the idea when we looked at small drones and realized they’re great for the last mile in suburban America, but the rest of the world needs more robust solutions. So we picked our payload to match what you can fit in a small cargo van because small cargo vans are ubiquitous in the developing world as a last-mile vehicle. We also favor subtone aircraft because the smaller the airplane, the more flexible the landing space can be. So 350 kg was a good trade-off that we realized fit well in our first markets – fast-growing economies in Asia, Africa and Latin America.
Your plane looks pretty cool outside, but what kind of technologies are powering it up from the inside?
“When you think about it – to have a cockpit with a seated human inside was a virtually non-negotiable constraint in aircraft design for more than a century. We didn’t have to worry about that, and this is why we were able to design such a fuel efficient airframe.”
If we tell you, we’d have to… just kidding. There are three parts to our innovation. First, it’s the design – we worked hard to come up with a design that gives us the best aerodynamic performance so that we take full advantage of the fact that there is no pilot on board. When you think about it – to have a cockpit with a seated human inside was a virtually non-negotiable constraint in aircraft design for more than a century. We didn’t have to worry about that, and this is why we were able to design such a fuel efficient airframe. The second part is – if the airframe is the body, the autopilot is the brain. The airplane needs to be able to sense itself and its environment, to make decisions, and to avoid trouble, in a way that’s the same or even better than what a human would do in the same situation. The third is in flight management – how do we, the humans on the ground, communicate with and manage each one of the aircraft in the network. At the end of the day, the customer doesn’t care how you transported their goods, as long as they’re delivered on time and on budget. Virtually all the issues in the customer experience within logistics arises from lack of seamlessness, and this is what we’re trying to solve, and that’s why our motto is Delivering Today – we envision a future where you could order an item from an artisan or a small entrepreneur at the other end of your country or halfway across the continent and you can receive it the same day. This is possible only with innovations on the vehicle level.
DRONAMICS represents the cargo drone industry, which has already generated a lot of buzz. In your opinion, how will the drones disrupt logistics and are there any specific trends we should look out for? Is it rather sooner or later that we see many drones conquering the sky of our cities carrying parcels?
I am a well-known skeptic when it comes to small delivery drones, especially with current battery and component capacity levels, and especially in cities. There are so many issues in an urban environment, that even if they’re overcome technologically (after all, we put a man on the moon, so everything is possible), the economic cost would add up so much that it won’t be worth it. In China, 25% of purchases are already made online. With current technology, small drones are not an adequate solution. You have to also consider that typically the last mile is a great source of employment, and policymakers all over the world are in no rush to allow the elimination of jobs on such a large scale. This is why we see drones first being used heavily cross-country and on international routes, as well as to difficult to access destinations. One of the most amazing things about humanity is how adaptive we are and how we have communities living in a wide variety of environments and settings, from the Equator to the Arctic, from the deserts to the tiny islands in the middle of the ocean. Cargo drones would be exceptionally suitable to serve destinations like that, much more than inner cities where the best mode for the next decade or two would continue to be a delivery driver with a ground vehicle.
“Drones by themselves can have a wide variety of functions, and those functions that will be most useful in the EU market are not the same that will be most useful in Sub-Saharan Africa. Europe has great road networks and very mature logistics market, but also let’s not forget that territorially it’s tiny compared to other continents.”
Which regulations do you think are still needed from the governments, particularly in the EU?
In our experience regulators around the world are open to this incoming technological revolution, so long as it maintains a safety level on par with, or exceeding that of existing technology. In the EU, which traditionally takes a much more collaborative approach, lawmakers have heard the voice of the industry, and switched away from a weight-based system to a risk-based system. In other words, they recognize that a small drone over a crowd should be regulated differently than a small drone over a farm. So the US and the EU are getting there, but understandably they are not in a hurry. What is important to them is not necessarily what is important to countries in Asia and Africa for example. Drones by themselves can have a wide variety of functions, and those functions that will be most useful in the EU market are not the same that will be most useful in Sub-Saharan Africa. Europe has great road networks and very mature logistics market, but also let’s not forget that territorially it’s tiny compared to other continents. And constructing a mile of paved road even in Africa costs close to a million dollars, so when you look at the fact that if current trends hold, 90% of the growth of human population in the next 80 years will come from Africa, you will realize that the point at which African countries would on average have the same paved road density as Europe is not in the near future, and in the meantime, people will need more and more goods transported, so air would be the only feasible option. Demographic trends in Europe are the polar opposite to this, and therefore lawmakers are more interested in use cases like farming and infrastructure inspection than in logistics, which is understandable.
DRONAMICS has become IATA’s first strategic partner in the unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) sector. That’s quite an achievement, can you tell us how did you manage to secure such a partnership and what led to it? What benefits do you expect from it?
Our goal is not only to produce the aircraft but also to operate them, together with local airlines in domestic markets in Asia, Africa and Latin America. So the relationship with IATA was a natural fit, and when they told us that they are opening their strategic partnership program to UAS companies, with the goal to create a working group that would help regulators worldwide create a path for the harmonious co-existence of unmanned and manned aviation, we stepped in. We are the oldest company developing UAS specifically designed for cargo and are happy to share the experience we have acquired throughout the years so that the industry could take off.
Which markets are you currently targeting? Why do you think that these areas are the best for DRONAMICS to start with?
We envision the backbone of it all will be marketplace e-commerce. In many markets, you don’t have chain stores in every town because the infrastructure and logistics are a challenge. At the same time, you have an economic and demographic boom, and one of the underlying traits of humanity is our ability to trade. You saw that in China with the emergence of literally thousands of Taobao villages – rural communities which lifted themselves out of poverty because they could now sell to all of China, not just to the nearest big city. China’s infrastructure is much better than most countries’ and that also helped, so to have such a transformation elsewhere you need to ensure logistics are available and affordable, which is essentially what we are doing. But outside of that, we see a great application in agriculture and pharma/cold-chain.
Do you have any success stories that you can share with our readers?
“Our progress so far, especially considering our resource efficiency, is what truly amazes people. But we won’t consider ourselves truly successful until we can look at the GDP growth of a country with our network and see how much faster it is than before. An efficient logistics network is such an enabler, it is hard to overstate. “
Our progress so far, especially considering our resource efficiency, is what truly amazes people. But we won’t consider ourselves truly successful until we can look at the GDP growth of a country with our network and see how much faster it is than before. An efficient logistics network is such an enabler, it is hard to overstate. Quality of life, livelihood, health and well being – these all depend on the quick, cheap and reliable transport of goods. There is no way our children will live in a conflict-free and poverty-free world unless this is in place. Ours is just one of the solutions, but what we really want is for others to help solve this too.
And the last questions, which is certainly an important one – what are the big goals for DRONAMICS in 2018?
It’s quite simple actually – in 2018 we’re growing the team, signing up new customers and working on the full-scale prototype. Beyond that, we’ll have some exciting news to share as well.