The experimental drone delivery flight to Texel in the Netherlands was canceled at the last minute, but we learned a lot along the way. Low-hanging clouds prevented an experimental transport flight with a drone from Den Helder to Texel on Wednesday morning. This was to the great disappointment of the interested parties who had come to the demonstration. But thanks to several presentations about the opportunities and challenges of drone delivery, the audience went home inspired.
Offshore drone delivery flight
Is it possible to carry out offshore transport flights with a drone? What needs to be done to make this technically and procedurally possible? And what does the integration of drone delivery into existing logistics processes look like? These are all issues addressed in the Long Distance Cargo Drone Delivery project, carried out at the METIP innovation center in the Kop van Noord-Holland.
According to research by drone operator and METIP partner DroneQ Robotics, almost 40% of the packages that are still transported by helicopters to and from platforms and ships at sea are eligible for drone delivery.
“It's not just about important documents, spare parts or emergency medication: chocolate letters are sometimes flown over by helicopter around Sinterklaas. Not only does that cost a lot of money, it is also not exactly sustainable,” says John Troch, director of DroneQ Robotics.
DroneQ Robotics collaborates with AirHub from METIP's Maritime Drone Initiative to enable offshore drone delivery flights. Drones can carry out such transport for a fraction of the price and much more energy-efficiently. Certainly, if the drones start flying automatically at a good time, no pilot is needed. But before drones can be used, a lot of testing still needs to be done. Flying over the sea to an island, for example.
During a demonstration on Wednesday, August 3, interested parties could see how a vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) drone with a small load on board would take off from the coast at Den Helder before heading to the Royal Netherlands Institute for Research of the Sea (NIOZ) on Texel. Then return with another load on board. This was done in close consultation with, among others, the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate and military air traffic control, given the proximity of De Kooy airfield.
The flight would be conducted under DroneQ Robotics' extended visual line of sight (EVLOS) procedure. To this end, observers were stationed at the Razende Bol (the sandbar in the Marsdiep) and at the final destination. A NOTAM was submitted and, at the last minute, another flight route was chosen because, according to an old rule, no civil air traffic is allowed to fly below 450 meters above the Wadden Sea. That rule also applies to drones, and it turned out that no exemption is possible. A route to the left along the Razende Bol provided a solution.
But at the last minute, air traffic control did not grant permission for the drone flight. Low-hanging clouds threw a spanner in the works: as a result, other air traffic would not be able to observe the drone, and it could not be flown according to the so-called visual flight rules (VFR).
“There is a 99.9% chance that it will go well, but we are taking it safe to say the least, and we do not want to close the entire airspace,” said Jan Verest, Head of Air Traffic Control at Maritime Air Camp de Kooy.
Yet the spectators had not traveled to Den Helder for nothing. Before the demonstration flight, space was built in for a number of presentations. not only about the intended demonstration and future plans, but also about the practical preparations for such a flight. The audience included representatives from the Coast Guard, Rijkswaterstaat, ANWB and people from the offshore sector.
Flight preparation in the Drone Operations Center
The goal is to perform a drone delivery flight automatically. Thomas Brinkman showed how the creation of drone delivery flight in the Drone Operations Center developed by AirHub is done. This starts with drawing the extreme boundaries within which the drone flight will take place, the so-called geofence. Then the route to be flown can be drawn. The system also shows whether any flight restrictions are in force. After that, the flight is awarded to the responsible pilot and the correct drone. After successfully completing the compliance check, the flight can be carried out.
While performing a flight, it is possible to manually take control and view the camera stream live from the drone. Video streams from other sources, such as bodycams, can also be viewed on the dashboard.
“Emergency services are particularly interested in this feature,” says Brinkman. In the future, it will also be possible to submit the flight to be performed to air traffic control if the airspace is controlled. They can immediately grant permission or reject a flight plan if the circumstances require it. But it is not that far yet, emphasizes Brinkman: “U-space has to be introduced first, and that can take a while.”
Despite the bad luck with the demo flight, John Troch is optimistic about the future.
“We have to learn to crawl before we can run. So we're taking small steps. Not only do we want to investigate how the drones perform under maritime conditions, we also have to ensure that drone delivery is well integrated into the logistics processes. This requires training, new procedures, and a culture change. Ultimately, we want to fly daily to platform L10-A with a drone. Drone delivery flights to ships and wind farms are also in the program,” Troch says.
Safety comes first in all of this. For this reason, all flights are first performed in a simulator. After that, the PW-ONE, a VTOL fixed-wing multirotor from Phoenix Wings, will be tested. That is a relatively cheap and lightweight device. Only at a later stage will testing be done with a production device that can carry heavier payloads, has satellite communication, and a longer range in addition to 4G/5G.
Troch emphasizes that a lot still needs to be done in the area of regulation. For example, flying out of sight (BVLOS) is still a difficult hurdle. “I appeal to the government to facilitate and encourage us, and not just strictly enforce the rules. We would like to work together with the Human Environment and Transport Inspectorate to create the conditions under which more can be done.”
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