Drones als transportvorm van de toekomst - Nederland test met medische goederen
In America, they have been calling it the ‘Battle For The Last Mile’ for years. In other words: how will the last part of parcel delivery be carried out in the future? Large multinationals such as Amazon, Walmart, DHL and UPS have been testing the use of drones. At the same time, parties in Europe, including the Netherlands, are working towards transporting medical goods in this way. In this video, we look at how drones are developing in this
area and how realistic the future of this form of transport really is. To find answers to our questions, we paid a visit to a few key players. At Avy, we got introduced to their transport drone....
"This is the Avy Aera, a drone that takes off vertically and flies horizontally." And at innovation centre Space53, we hear which doubts still need to be resolved. "I haven't seen any calculations that show that transport by drone is necessarily cheaper. Of course it isn't by definition, there will be situations where it can be done." In the Netherlands and surrounding countries, tests are being conducted with transport drones. One of the initiatives focuses on transporting medical goods. This is done under the name
Medical Drone Service, which is a collaboration between ANWB and PostNL and companies from the medical sector. "What we are currently testing is whether we can transport medical goods from A to B, for example from hospital to hospital or from blood bank to hospital, and see if that would be quicker, easier or cheaper than say, a helicopter or by road. The aim is to ultimately make care more affordable, more accessible and perhaps even a little cheaper. It can
be different kinds of goods, the most imaginative perhaps being blood samples. You want to examine blood samples for certain values as soon as possible after the patient's blood has been drawn. Sometimes this is really urgent and the examination does not always take place in the same place as where the blood was taken. Think of the Wadden Islands, for example:
in principle you could take blood there, but you can't examine it. The blood samples have to be transported to mainland. If it's not urgent, this is done by boat, and if it is urgent, the patient is often taken to the mainland by helicopter. So yes, you have to think about that, let me put it this way: urgent medical goods." One of the test routes goes from a hospital in Zwolle to one in Meppel. This involves flying at a cruising speed of 70 km/h at a height of 100 metres, making the flight take 15 to 20 minutes.
"It's about 20 km long and both hospitals are on the outskirts of town. This is important for us, since we are currently not allowed to and cannot fly over built-up areas, so we really want to get to sparsely populated areas as we call them, areas where relatively few people live. At the moment, we are not yet flying the whole route, and that has to do with the fact that we still encounter obstacles in certain places, such as high-voltage cables. We are currently examining the conditions under which we can fly over them, in order to do so safely. So up to now we fly from a meadow outside Meppel to a meadow just outside Zwolle, about 16 km. In the future, it must therefore be from hospital to hospital." The drone used for these tests is a combination of a fixed-wing system and a multirotor. It
takes off vertically with the four quadrotors and then flies its route using only the pusher motor and the wings. The motors have a combined power of four kilowatts. They have 16-inch propellers that can rotate up to 8000 rpm. With this design, it should consume less energy than more traditional drones and is able to fly faster and further. The drone is being developed by the Dutch company Avy, which has been around since 2016. Here, we have a number of parts, a large number of hatches on our device that allow us to access all the components that we carry. Here you can see a number of them as they look from the inside. This for example is a Lidar system, which you can also see here on the
aircraft, it has two lenses and they continuously measure the distance from the ground, so during landing and take-off, we know more precisely how high we fly above the ground and that ensures that we can actually always land very neatly and gently, even if we do so on an elevation, so for example if we land on top of a building or if we land on a dike, then we know exactly how high we are. Here you see GPS, we use different positioning systems, GPS, Beidou, Glonass, to determine our position accurately. Here you also see our ADSB transponder, which is a transponder to pick up other air traffic, so that we always have access to air traffic in the vicinity through the ground stations. And a radio module to communicate directly with our drone. Various antennas, here the LTE antennas, cooling for the ESC, the speed controller. It sits strictly outside the drone as we have a good airflow along it. And here in front you can also see our airspeed sensor: Pitot tube, with that we
always know how fast we are flying. The reason we can't use GPS data for that is because it would measure our ground speed, but we also want to know how fast we are moving through the air, because that is important so we still get enough lift from flying forward. "We are increasingly making more of it ourselves, when we started we bought a lot of components and there are still components that we buy, for example the motors, we don't build them ourselves, we buy them. But we actually develop all the software that runs on the aircraft. We are also producing more and more of the electronics on board ourselves. That is mainly
to have more control over the quality we want to deliver and also to be ready to be certified at a later stage." The Avy Aera can operate completely autonomously. In practice, this means that an operator enters a destination in advance, maps out a flight path and, once the mission has started, the aircraft carries it out itself. The operator can always intervene manually. For example,
in the event of other unexpected air traffic, or if the landing site is not free yet. In the future, Avy hopes to extend its autonomy further so that the drone itself can plan alternative routes based on the information available. In addition, it is important that the operation around it is automated further. "Today we are both at place A and at place B where we are flying to, we are with a person who is keeping an eye on whether the landing area is clear and who has also set up the weather stations. That means that you already need two people, we have a pilot on board
our car at the moment, there are quite a few people involved in this operation now, but that is because it is a test. Ultimately, we want to get to a situation where we can operate from the mission control centre, as we call it, at a certain central location, which could be in The Hague, where we currently have a small facility, but it could also be anywhere in the world, it doesn't matter at all, as long as there is an internet connection, you can do like what the pilot is doing here behind me in the van. That person can then control multiple drones at the same time.The idea is that in the places where the landing takes place, those places are known, so that you know the exact location in advance, that there is a standard weather station, that the battery can be charged automatically, things like that, so that the operation can be done locally without human intervention. In the future, you could carry out an entire operation with several drones, with 1 pilot in a central location, The Hague. The only thing a person would have to do for the time
being is load and unload the drone. Because eventually the goods will have to be loaded anyway. We expect to be able to do a regular route at specific times and under specific conditions, for the first time by the end of 2022. So think of good weather, at night, on the Meppel-Zwolle route. Only then will U-Space actually come into the picture, so only after that can we start thinking about operating on a more regular basis, for example all day or on several routes with multiple drones. Ultimately, the idea is that by 2024/2025, U-Space and the whole sector, including drone technology of course, will have evolved so much that we will be able to scale up and make a large nationwide network of drones.
However before that happens, a number of challenges will have to be dealt with. Think, for example, of the weather, the influence of which is still a recurring theme. Also the drone makes relatively short flights of up to an hour. "We think we could fly about 90-95% of the time in Dutch weather conditions. But we are not there yet, there are still some challenges ahead of us. The challenge lies mainly in the large wings that we take with us, which create a lot of lift, so when gusts of wind arrive, the aircraft may go a little bit more in one direction or a little bit more in the other and we have to correct that with the rotors, especially during take-off and landing, it is a really crucial moment for us, and we are getting smarter by developing better control algorithms to be able to respond better and faster, and thus increase our wind limits.
At the moment wind is our biggest challenge, generally we don't fly in rain, that is mainly as a precaution. We now have an aircraft in development that will allow us to fly in all weather conditions, including hard rain, so we are stretching the limits further, so that is indeed our target: 90-95% of the time, in the combination of weather and wind." To be allowed to transport the medical goods, strict requirements must be met. That is why
Avy has developed a kind of cool box in which the blood can remain exactly between two temperatures. These values can of course be monitored during the flight. Another important aspect that creates obstacles is legislation and regulations. Thanks to a European regulation, a little more has been possible since the end of last year. It is now permitted to fly above people
and within an inhabited environment, and most importantly: without the pilot having a direct view of the drone. However, the test flights still require a temporary airspace closure. But that is obviously not a sustainable solution for the future. That is why the European Union is working on a system that should ensure that drone flights can be safely integrated into airspace. A set of protocols, technologies and rules is being developed under the name U-Space. Only when such a form of airspace management has been put in place will remote
drone operations be able to take off. To find out how likely it is that these kinds of tests will one day lead to actual operations... we visit Marc Sandelowsky. With his test and development centre on the old air force site in Twente, he keeps a close eye on developments within the whole drone sector. "First of all, I think there's a pretty good chance that a lot of those companies will stop using them in Europe altogether, it could well be, look most of those companies are of course small or upscaling companies that want quick cash flow and with the way we do it in Europe, the whole careful approach and regulations and circumstances it could very well be that those companies end up saying, you know, let’s leave Europe for a while.
The market in India is bigger anyway, or the market in Nigeria. So it remains to be seen whether we will see it at all. I am a bit afraid of that because I would find it a pity since it would mean that it would be very difficult for Dutch companies to infiltrate that market because then your first customer is 3000 km away and how are you going to develop your product there. Complicated. I understand the care with which the Medical Drone Service is approaching the project, which of course includes a logistical star player like PostNL, so it's not for nothing that they say we're going to take a number of years for this because they know how complex it is and I think it is especially complex because of the underlying network idea, it should not be a one-off flight that goes up and down 30 times a year, it should really be part of an entire infrastructure. That takes time. I think they are right in
estimating that the entire integration part in the airspace will take a lot of time and these are elements that we, from our enthusiasm, from the innovation cluster, are happy to overlook, like 'hey we have organised it now and all they have to do is allow it, we have thought of everything, solutions have been thought of for everything, also for the integration in the airspace, we have technically thought of everything, all they have to do is allow it. And I think that, for example, the somewhat larger organisations that are also active in the Dutch Drone Delta realise that this is just not how things work with the authorities; they have a very careful decision-making process.They call it being careful, I would say slow. This involves so many stages and there are so many bears on the road that it is perhaps realistic to say that it will take another three to five years. But it's not really necessary, this can be solved perfectly well in a year's time and we could see a lot in a year's time, but then all parties would have to cooperate and they won't, we already know that. So yes, three to five years. I once said and I still say that in three to five years' time we will
have as many drones in the air as there are delivery vans in the neighbourhoods." But at Space53 they also know that there have been more of these kinds of initiatives in the drone sector that did not make it. For instance, because they turned out to be too complicated or not sufficiently prepared. "What is the business case? It sounds very nice, transport by drones, or a taxi drone, but what does it cost per kilometre and compared that with other modalities, and means of transport. I have yet to see a calculation that shows that transport by drone is by definition cheaper.
That is of course not the case by definition. There will be situations where it will be possible. The business case is often not yet complete, because what will the drone cost if you fly it every day? Look, for that one-off demonstration, it worked, but what does it cost to do it for a year, with spare parts and the operator who has to be there, and the management that you have around it, etcetera. So I think the business case is one and of
course also a legal one, it should all be allowed, and in the current regulations there are provisions for it, but it hasn't been regulated yet. And in that respect, the Netherlands is - I don't know if it's specific to the Netherlands, but I have noticed it in the Netherlands - we have become risk-averse, we prefer to keep all the risks out beforehand. Code red, because somewhere along the line it might get icy, yes, sorry, we used to go to school on skates, nowadays they close the schools. I don't understand it at all, but
that's the way we apparently want to deal with risks in the Netherlands these days. This means that any new technology is assessed so strictly, not only by the regulators but also by the public itself, that it is extremely difficult to get approval for it. I'm jokingly saying that if you take a design to the RDW now and show them ‘I've got a really cool device, it goes about 300 km/h, it has two wheels underneath and no crumple zones’, they won't give you permission, but meanwhile hundreds of thousands of these motorbikes have been on the road for years and years, and I think safely enough, at least we think it's responsible. So that might well be the case. That risk aversion. I think the whole
discussion surrounding the Stint, I think that's what's bothering the drone world. The Stint falls in more or less the same category, in terms of regulations, in terms of authorities, who should give permission for it, who should supervise it. They all received a terrible slap on the wrist after one such accident, which of course was a terrible accident, only the implementation of it has killed an enormous amount of innovations. And no one dares to
take any more risks there now. So that could still be a very annoying factor. But I don't mind it in itself, I think it's really good that as a technology, developer or sector, you have to demonstrate that what you are doing is safe and responsible and that you don't just take to the skies with a constructed construction of mechanics, Lego and tape, and I think that is justified. Suppose that in the future, despite all the tests, no operations get off the ground in the Netherlands, Space53 does not think this is a waste of money or energy. "You may think that for the Netherlands it does not add very much, but there are other markets in Europe and beyond where it does add a lot. And it could be that you develop something here that you can then export. And our circumstances are of course very complicated. The Netherlands is of course a small country with a very high population density, many cities, a lot of infrastructure, there is always a motorway nearby, there is always some major infrastructure nearby for which you have to take extra precautions, so that when you are working on such a product like that, you soon find yourself in a situation where it becomes complex, complicated. And if you can handle that well, then yes, you
will succeed, I say jokingly without having too much experience in it, even in France, in rural areas, where you have fewer of those kinds of circumstances. But then an airport happens to be nearby, with a, perhaps controlled airport, with a zone around it, and if you have no experience in that, whereas if you do it here in the Netherlands, you can hardly avoid it, because there is always an airport or flying area nearby The Medical Drone Service team has set aside three years for the research. It started last year and the test trajectory is now halfway through the 2nd phase. In this phase, parts of routes are flown for medical partners over sparsely populated areas. In the next and final phase, complete routes including flights over populated should be made then.