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“In Africa the drones get cheered on landing” – interview with Duncan Walker of Skyports

Duncan Walker is Co-Founder and Managing Director of Skyports (https://skyports.net/)

Could you tell me how the drone delivery trials went in Vantaa – what the objective of the project was and what the results of the programme are?

The objective of the trials was to demonstrate urban e-commerce deliveries by drone, gather customer feedback, test operations in challenging conditions (minus 10 degrees c, wind, snow, ice) all within close proximity of Helsinki airport.

Generally the trials were successful, which is not to say everything went perfectly from start to finish, but we always find we learn much more from the elements that don’t work perfectly than the elements that do.  The key is to do these trials in a live environment but well managed so there is no risk if things deviate from the plan.  We made a number of successful deliveries and found that whilst the drones worked pretty well in cold conditions, the humans worked less well.  Swapping a battery having spent 4 hours outside in that weather isn’t as easy as it sounds.

Where will your first operational installations be?

We have a number of projects that we are working on which we hope to turn into permanent operations within the next 12 months.  It somewhat depends on regulators so we deliberately work across a number of markets.  We are working on projects in the UK, northern Europe, Middle East, Southern Europe and Africa.  The altruist in me would love our African projects to be the first operational programmes.  The business case is stronger in Northern Europe.  Real value starts to emerge when drones can be used across projects in the same location – delivering medical supplies when required and post or less urgent items when not.

What do you see as the key technology milestones to the development of a fully commercialised urban/suburban drone delivery operation? How far off are we?

Communication links are consistently our biggest challenge.  There isn’t a one size fits all solution – what works in one city can be completely useless in another because of topography; natural or manmade.  UTM is also a challenge.  Some cities are making real progress for example Dubai.  Others are less well advanced.  For fully commercialised operations, we need standardisation of approach to communications and traffic management.  In the more advanced cities, I can see this at some scale within 3 years.  Other cities will take longer and in those locations it is probably societal constraints or regulation that lag the technology hurdles.

What are the technical, institutional and environmental challenges to deploying vertiports around a city?

It would be great if there was only one answer to this question because we could solve it and have a repeatable solution.  In reality each city is very different.  Singapore has different challenges to London which has different challenges to Los Angeles.  Some of the challenges we face include predicting the future requirements for vehicles, not just the current ones.  Infrastructure is a long term play and needs to be future proofed.  Size and shape of the vertiports, recharging approach, loading, power supplies etc all need consideration.  Environmentally, some cities are much more sensitive.  Noise is much more relevant in London than Jakarta for example.

Do we have any proper understanding yet from the trials so far of likely public attitudes towards drone delivery services?

We have some.  A proper understanding will take time and is hard to simulate in trail scenarios.  There is a clear difference in perception depending on what is being carried and where.  In Africa the drones get cheered on landing which is understandable when they can cut the delivery time of life saving medicine from days to minutes.  The feedback we have had from other trials that have been conducted has been different – for example Project Wing in Canberra had some negative feedback around noise, but that feedback is a key reason for doing the trials.  When we are flying the general response is some interest for a short period of time and then a degree of ambivalence.  We have had very few complaints.

How should we best engage local authorities and national regulators in ensuring the balance between delivering new services, safety and environmental protection is achieved?

There is only one way to do this and that is though well managed proof of concepts.  It is impossible to answer all the questions sitting in an office.  The most proactive regulators are engaging with industry to understand this new service alongside them.  We are putting in BVLOS applications and specifically asking regulators what they want to learn from the process and how we can enable that.  Its often the first time that many of these authorities have dealt with these types of applications.  Try learning to play tennis by sitting at a desk and reading a book on the subject.

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