Currently, test flights with the drone are still taking place. However, come summer, the UAV is scheduled to commence commercial operation. For safety reasons, the initial flights will mainly only be across water, between Malta and Italy. By then, operator Dronamics, which already possesses an AOC, expects to also have the necessary approvals from the EU aviation authority, EASA. Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, too, plays a major role in this project because the company will utilize the drone's capacity exclusively for its own purposes during the initial phase in Europe.
If everything goes according to plan, as of next summer a new aerial vehicle will cross the skies at altitudes of between around 5,000 and 7,000 meters: the Black Swan, developed by Bulgarian
brothers, Svilen and Konstantin Rangelov. It is an unmanned fixed-wing cargo drone that, according to the manufacturer, can carry a payload of up to 350 kg, and cover distances of around 2,500
km, nonstop. As a CarbonNeutral® certified company, Dronamics aims to be completely CO2 neutral in the medium term. The Black Swan drone is powered by clean and energy-efficient technologies that
already produce 80% fewer emissions than other means of transportation. Trained and certified specialists must be on site at the takeoff and landing points, partly for safety but also for
technical reasons, while the flights are monitored remotely by traffic controllers at a control center. Up to 12 flights can be overseen and managed by a single flight controller at any one time,
says Jan Kleine Lasthues (JKL). He is Chief Operating Officer Air Freight at Hellmann, and is currently preparing the first commercial deployment of the Black Swan in coordination with the
CFG spoke with him about the status of the project and Hellmann’s involvement:
Air beats road
CFG: Hellmann operates its own overnight express network in Europe, which is served by Sprinter vehicles. Why does your company intend to utilize the Black Swan in addition?
JKL: For several reasons. In terms of time, the Black Swan beats road transport by far. It can operate at smaller airports with short runways, or those with turf cover. Even larger parking lots suffice for the drone to be able to land or take off, provided the areas are secured. These are parameters that make Black Swan operations very versatile, easy to reach by ground delivery or pickup trucks, and this significantly increases transport speed compared to any road solution. The only limitation is that larger commercial airports are off-limits for them for collision reasons. So, we won’t see any Black Swan at CDG, FRA, AMS, LHR, or BCN.
CFG: What does a cost comparison between drone and sprinter look like based on a distance of 800 km, for example?
JKL: We have individual pricing models that we are currently evaluating. We ask for your understanding that we will not provide any financial specifics at the current time, when commercial flights have not even started. Only this: The flight of a shipment by the Black Swan - based on the transported kilogram - is more expensive than a road transport by Sprinter, but not substantially. In the overall calculation, customers will have to take into account the time advantage.
Many use cases
CFG: This probably applies above all to urgent and high-value goods. Which drone-compatible products is Hellmann thinking about in particular?
JKL: Currently, we have various use cases in mind. For example, we could use Black Swans to provide shuttle services for components for the automotive industry between different production plants. Malta is home to various aerospace companies that are in constant need of urgent supplies coming from the mainland. Aerospace production sites in Hamburg and Toulouse could also be quickly and easily linked by drone.
Strict division of competencies
CFG: Presumably, the cooperation is based on a strict division of labor: Dronamics takes care of the operations of the drones, repairs, and the technical requirements, while Hellmann books the capacity of the UAVs and fills them with its own shipments. Correct?
JKL: That is exactly the business case. We don't want to be involved in the operational processes but will limit ourselves to acquiring shipments that are then transported by drone, currently almost, and in the future completely, CO2-neutral. Mostly, they will consist of parcels, but the drone also offers space for 2 smaller pallets.
First ad hoc, followed by regular flights
CFG: Will operations begin as ad hoc missions or directly as scheduled services?
JKL: Initially on an ad hoc basis as a prerequisite for getting into a regular flow. In a second step, scheduled services are to follow, offering all market participants to book capacity. As Hellmann, we are proactively accompanying this development because our goal is a pan-European drone network to offer our customers a sustainable and even faster delivery service. In the mid-term, we think that other markets such as Indonesia or the USA could be penetrated as well, provided the European use cases run well. As a global logistics provider, we are always looking beyond our own fence.
CFG: Thank you for these insights.
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