Could drones be the answer to timely and efficient global distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine? Brittany Coles investigates the potential of advanced air mobility with Prof Douglas Creighton and Dr Hermione Parsons at Deakin University.
In the first study of its kind, Australian researchers have found significant opportunity for drone delivery services. When the team began exploring Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) in Australia over a year ago, Dr Hermione Parsons, Industry Professor and founding Director of Deakin University’s Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics (CSCL) says that people would tell her that “it is madness, this is fanciful, this is the Jetsons.”
“How can we in the modern era say anything is fanciful? We each have a phone that we call a camera or a calendar, we have documents that fly through space and immediately appear in our computers. We can fly interstate and overseas, so why is Advance Air Mobility (AAM) preposterous for freight? It’s not too out there, it’s just another tool and we must be become transport mode agnostic,” Dr Hermione says.
How do we distribute freight quickly in new patterns? She says that often when advancing technology is explored to benefit movement in society people think it’s to replace existing modes of transport. “That is not the case. We have a number of new supply chain issues due to the pandemic. We need new delivery methods and new possibilities to solve increasingly complex logistical challenges and that can be helped by focusing on the opportunities this new technology presents,” Dr Hermione says.
Significant opportunity for high priority freight
As the world continues to urbanise, and as we move away from fossil fuels to sustainable energy sources, developing new and efficient transportation systems will be critical. To meet the challenge, industries and policy makers will need to develop new skills and change their mind-sets to make a successful transition.
Electric aviation is becoming a global movement, with significant recent advances attracting investors, companies and governments in the United States, Europe, Asia and closer to home in New Zealand, where they are set to begin passenger transport trials.
Deakin University has released a white paper that evaluates the opportunities and next steps for Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) in Australia, focusing on electric Vertical Take-Off and Landing (eVTOL) aircraft in the passenger and freight context.
It is the first and most comprehensive literature review and study of this nature, and analyses the regulatory challenges, operating potential and likely benefits of AAM and eVTOL. The study is a collaboration between the Institute for Intelligent Systems Research and Innovation (IISRI) and the Centre for Supply Chain and Logistics.
The landmark Deakin study confirms that AAM is a significant opportunity for Australia to develop its high-tech industry sector, with potential for employment and export growth. Areas that could benefit from this advancing technology include high priority freight and personal transport, markets which would enable new technical jobs and new sources of revenue. Professor Doug Creighton, co-author of the white paper and Deputy Director of Institute for Intelligent Systems, Research and Innovation (IISRI), emphasised that while the way forward presented many challenges, the possibilities were exciting.
“There are challenges to adopting AAM in Australia, including regulation, safety, noise, community acceptance and locations but we need to support the development of capabilities related to new mobility and explore entrepreneurial ideas,” Professor Doug says.
Distributing the COVID-19 vaccine
The logistics and supply chain world is preparing for the challenge of a lifetime in ensuring timely and efficient global distribution of the vaccine. As we move closer to a vaccine becoming a reality, Dr Hermione Parsons says the potential for AAM in the local supply chain will be of high value and could provide organisations with solutions as the vaccine supply chain scrambles to solve different distribution scenarios.
“How do we move freight very quickly in a decentralised pattern of distribution when we have new challenges associated with the pandemic and changing societal expectations and behaviours? “Time and the secure delivery of inventory are really important issues in logistics and AAM may be fit for purpose.” she says.
Professor Doug says the distribution of a vaccine will require a concentrated global supply chain effort with diligent forward planning. Vaccines are of higher values than the average consumer product due to its sensitive nature of being a temperature-controlled item.
Dr Hermione recalls a fascinating case study throughout this research that highlighted proven success of vaccine delivery through drones. In Africa, Rwanda – ‘the land of a thousand hills’ – they use a drone technology called ‘Zipline’ which cuts blood delivery times down from four hours to just 15 minutes in some cases. “A country we don’t think of as an advanced nation uses drone technology to distribute blood for transfusions to save children with AIDS across the country. Rwanda has gone on to use drones to manage soil quality and crops and that is just amazing. This technology could also be used to distribute the COVID-19 vaccine across difficult landscapes?”
Dr Hermione says the end goal is to bring this important COVID-19 vaccine to everyone when it becomes a reality. “It’s not fanciful to think about the complex task of distributing a vaccine via the sky. However, we must also think about the supply chain service in totality – the nurse who will be jabbing the vaccine, the vaccine, the security of product, specialised refrigeration and other equipment… so how will it all work?” she says.
Dr Hermione suggested aged care may be the priority for the first wave of vaccination. First, location must be considered. “Plenty of aged care facilities are in little towns dotted throughout rural Australia. To ensure as many nursing homes are receiving the vaccine as quickly as possible it could well be an AAM or eVTOL aircraft is used to speed up the process,” she says.
Australia could potentially see AAM or eVTOL aircrafts landing in the carparks of aged care facilities, shopping centres or medical clinics. “We know from COVID-19 testing sites that medical attention is now occurring in car parks. If we reconsider the phenomenal pace of change across the sector and in technology, it could happen,” Dr Hermione says.
Emerging technology taking off
The first recognised controlled flight by a powered aircraft in Australia was completed by Harry Houdini in 1910 just outside Melbourne. “You can see the evolutionary change over the past 110 years as technologies developed and see the rapid uptake of aviation in general. Up until covid, the role of commercial airlines in Australia has primarily been intercity movement of people and freight. I don’t see eVTOL as changing this role but integrating AAM with existing transport networks will encourage markets to be creative with consolidation and distribution of their goods,” Professor Doug says.
Deputy Prime Minister and Minister for Infrastructure, Transport and Regional Development Michael McCormack said a report released by the Australian Government on the economic benefit of drones in Australia quantified the potential benefits and savings broader drone use could have for the nation’s economy over five, 10 and 20 year periods.
“Expanding drone and aerial taxi use is expected to have a major economic boost for Australia, providing a $14.5 billion increase in GDP over the next 20 years – of which $4.4 billion would be in regional areas across New South Wales, Queensland and Victoria,” the Deputy Prime Minister said in November at the time of the report. “It also found the growth of the drone sector is expected to deliver significant cost-savings to businesses of around $9.3 billion over the next 20 years, with $2.95 billion of this in the agriculture, forestry and fisheries industries, $2.4 billion in mining and $1.34 billion in construction.”
According to Professor Doug, we have the potential to drive cost down using emerging technology in society and drone use could even be the same price as a cab ride. He says there is already recognised opportunity in the medical area and further innovation is being trialled following recent studies.
“The disruption to the aviation market has pushed further innovation for aircrafts beyond passengers and cargo. In agriculture, drones could support farmers by decreasing the costs of production,” Professor Doug says. Dr Hermione goes on to emphasise that we are in a unique position as a nation to grasp the benefits of drones with both hands.
“This is about meeting new and unexpected supply chain demand. We must open our mind to new possibilities, and I believe from our whitepaper research, experiences and consultation with AAM in Australia, there are significant opportunities here. The technology is evolving fast with massive investment worldwide and our research shows its uses for both people and freight are real,” Dr Hermione says.