00:00:07 Introduction and Emmanuel de Maistre’s background.
00:01:24 The current state of drones in supply chains and expectations.
00:02:46 Other applications for drones outside of deliveries.
00:04:01 Niche use cases for drone deliveries and investment in the industry.
00:06:00 Drones in dealing with messy landscapes and potential future use cases.
00:08:01 Drones being used for security, industrial, and supply chain purposes.
00:09:00 How drone usage will add complexity and require automation in supply chains.
00:11:47 Addressing safety concerns and the development of unmanned traffic management systems for drones.
00:14:37 The potential impact of drone usage on city landscapes and economics.
00:15:30 Comparing efficiency between drones and traditional delivery vehicles in last-mile logistics.
00:16:40 Zipline’s drone delivery service in Africa for medical supplies.
00:17:30 Environmental impact of drone usage and noise pollution.
00:19:12 Future of drones: smaller, less noticeable, and potentially carrying people.
00:22:01 Autonomous electric or hybrid passenger aircraft development.
Kieran Chandler interviews Joannes Vermorel and Emmanuel de Maistre about drones in supply chains. De Maistre believes drones may Excel in warehouse operations and support for autonomous vehicles rather than delivery. The discussion explores drone use cases, such as surveillance and agriculture, emphasizing autonomy as a key aspect. Regulatory and certification challenges hinder drone delivery progress. They consider safety, international regulation synchronization, and efficient last-mile delivery in urban areas. Drones’ environmental impact is unclear, but potential benefits exist. Drone technology continues to advance, with niche applications like emergency medical supplies and airport-to-city transport predicted in the next five to ten years.
In this interview, host Kieran Chandler speaks with Joannes Vermorel, founder of Lokad, and Emmanuel de Maistre, founder of the French drone company Redbird. The conversation focuses on the use of drones in supply chains and whether it’s a viable possibility for the future.
Emmanuel de Maistre has been in the drone business for seven years, witnessing the birth of the commercial drone industry from its early regulation to its current widespread use across various industries. The prospect of using drones in supply chains has been a topic of discussion for a long time, particularly after Amazon’s Jeff Bezos announced plans for Amazon Prime Air in 2013.
De Maistre believes that supply chain-related drones are not quite there yet, and that Amazon’s announcement may have misdirected expectations. He suggests that while drones are becoming smaller, cheaper, and smarter, delivery may not be the area where they will excel. Instead, he sees potential in using drones to improve warehouse operations and to support autonomous vehicles.
Despite the hype around drone delivery, it has not become a commercial reality for everyday package deliveries. However, there have been some interesting niche use cases developed for delivering packages in remote areas or for specific industrial applications, such as delivering mining parts to large sites where human activity on the ground is limited. De Maistre believes there is a bright future for drone delivery in unexplored use cases and that it represents a significant opportunity for new businesses.
The drone industry in general has seen a similar hype, with around $3 billion invested in the sector over a decade. However, few companies have generated significant revenue, with the exception of Chinese giant DJI, which has a revenue of about $3 billion. The rest of the industry is composed of small startups still struggling to be profitable.
While drones have made significant advancements in recent years, their role in supply chain deliveries is still uncertain. The industry may need to shift its focus towards other areas where drones can provide more immediate value and explore new use cases to fully harness the potential of this technology.
The discussion begins with an exploration of the various use cases for drones, such as entertainment, mining, and surveillance. Joannes highlights that drones are particularly useful in navigating messy landscapes and hard-to-reach areas, while Emmanuel adds that consumer drones have been overtaken by commercial and industrial applications in recent years. Some examples include 3D reconstruction, bridge and pipeline inspections, agricultural applications, and security.
The key to unlocking the full potential of drones in the supply chain is autonomy. Joannes mentions that autonomous ground vehicles are already emerging, and Emmanuel believes that drones are naturally suited for autonomous operation. The main challenge for drone deliveries, however, is not technical but rather regulatory and certification-related.
Considering how drone deliveries might affect supply chains in the future, Joannes suggests that they will become another transportation option, adding to the complexity of supply chains. This increasing complexity will require companies to embrace a more automated approach in decision-making, as traditional tools like spreadsheets become insufficient.
The interview then turns to the issue of safety, as the potential increase in drone traffic raises concerns about collisions and risks to people and property on the ground. Emmanuel explains that to ensure safety, drones will need to be equipped with communication systems to relay their positions in real-time to an automated air traffic control system, called Unmanned Traffic Management (UTM). Although this technology has not been fully developed yet, the size and weight of the necessary sensors make it a feasible solution.
The conversation focuses on the challenges of implementing drone technology and the potential benefits of its use in various contexts.
A key issue discussed is the organization and integration of drone technologies among different countries. The European Aviation Authority is attempting to harmonize regulations within Europe, but synchronization with the US and Asia remains a challenge. Ensuring that civil aviation authorities agree on common principles is crucial to the development and implementation of drone technology.
Another challenge is the safe operation of drones, especially when it comes to landing or crash landing. Current solutions include parachutes and designated safe landing areas, but more comprehensive safety measures are yet to be developed and implemented.
The potential benefits of using drones for deliveries, particularly in urban environments, are also discussed. Conventional delivery vehicles, which typically involve moving large amounts of metal to transport relatively small packages, are not very efficient. Drones, while less efficient per kilogram than trucks, can be more suitable for last-mile delivery in dense urban areas. The minimum size required for delivery vehicles to accommodate human drivers contributes to their inefficiency. Autonomous ground vehicles, on the other hand, could be smaller and more efficient.
Value and speed of delivery are other factors to consider when evaluating the potential of drone deliveries. For example, Zip Line, a California-based company, successfully uses drones to deliver blood samples and medicines in African countries like Rwanda and Kenya. In these contexts, drones can significantly reduce delivery times compared to driving on challenging roads, especially during the rainy season.
Regarding the environmental impact of drones, while there may be potential benefits, the interviewees note that there is not enough publicly available data to make a definitive assessment. However, if used properly, drones can have a long lifespan and may be more environmentally friendly than traditional delivery methods.
They highlight the low carbon emissions of electric drones, but also address concerns about noise pollution and social acceptance. Joannes envisions smaller drones that are mostly invisible and quiet for various applications. He sees drone deliveries as more niche, focusing on high-value, emergency situations, such as medical supplies. Emmanuel agrees, predicting that drones will eventually carry people, with applications like airport-to-city transportation. Both acknowledge the rapid progress in drone technology and anticipate more advancements in the next five to ten years.
Kieran Chandler: Hey, ever since Jeff Bezos announced plans for Amazon Prime Air back in 2013, there’s been a lot of hype surrounding the idea of using drones for deliveries. However, with question marks surrounding both safety and sustainability, it is unclear whether this is a viable possibility for the supply chains of the future. Today on Lokad TV, we’re delighted to be joined by Emmanuel de Maistre who’s going to help us answer this question. So, Emmanuel, thanks very much for joining us today. As always, we like to know a little bit about our guests, so perhaps you could just tell us a little bit more about your background and also a little bit about de l’air, the company you’re currently at.
Emmanuel de Maistre: Sure, and thanks for having me. My name is Emmanuel, and I’ve been in the drone business for seven years, which is quite long for the industry actually. I started a drone company back in 2012 called Redbird, a French company which we ran for about five years before we got acquired by a US company called Airware. So for five years, I witnessed the birth of the commercial drone industry from the very beginning, the early regulation, all the way up to actually quite a major industry today, since a lot of businesses are using drones for various applications.
Kieran Chandler: Okay, great. Our topic today is all about the prospect of using drones in supply chains. I mean, over the New Year’s celebrations that recently happened, we saw those really cool videos of drones doing fireworks displays. But from a more practical usage standpoint, what’s your view on the industry at present?
Joannes Vermorel: My view is that, as far as supply chains are concerned, drones are not there yet. I also think that the Amazon presentation was probably steering expectations in the wrong direction. People were looking at drones for deliveries, but when I look at what drones are getting very good at, I would say that deliveries are probably not one of those things where they will truly shine. Maybe they will, but when I look at drones, I see them getting smaller, cheaper, and smarter, which converges to plenty of very useful things that aren’t necessarily related to deliveries. I see plenty of interest in improving what is happening within warehouses, within large facilities, and maybe even helping with autonomous vehicles as support. There are plenty of other angles, but they probably aren’t centered around deliveries. I don’t know. What is your take on that?
Emmanuel de Maistre: I think it’s been a recurring topic of discussion in the drone industry for a long time. I remember the Amazon announcement back in 2013, and there was huge media coverage after Jeff Bezos said he would deliver packages via drones. I also remember he said it would take five years for it to become a commercial reality. The thing is, it didn’t become a commercial reality for everyday package delivery, even though I’ve seen some really interesting niche use cases being developed for delivering packages in really remote areas or for specific industrial cases like mining, where drones are used to deliver mining parts or packages to huge sites like big mines where basically nobody is running on the ground. I think there’s a bright future for drone delivery in use cases that haven’t been investigated yet, and it’s certainly a big opportunity for new businesses.
What I would say, though, is that the hype around drone delivery has been similar to the hype surrounding the drone industry in general. There have been about three billion US dollars invested over a decade in the drone business, but if you look at the reality today, very few companies make significant revenue, with the only exception being GI
Kieran Chandler: There seems to be an exception with DJI, the Chinese giant making about three billion dollars in revenue. Otherwise, the rest of the industry is small companies still in the startup stage that are still struggling to be profitable. DJI has been very successful with hobbyists and people interested in filming themselves. Emmanuel mentioned they’re also in the mining industry. What are the use cases that drones are currently used for?
Joannes Vermorel: In general, I believe right now it’s mostly for fun and also probably for the entertainment industry. You can already see many series coming out where drones are used. The way it’s shot is clearly a drone shot, and it’s much cheaper and easier than a helicopter. The quality is now 4k. As far as supply chains are concerned, I think people may be underestimating how messy the world is. Your warehouse might not be super lean and well organized. Your facilities might have an accidental landscape with plenty of areas where it’s more complicated to get from point A to point B. Sometimes it’s even difficult to circulate because it’s not easy to walk around or it’s dangerous. In these situations, I see drones being very useful in helping supply chains become better at dealing with messy landscapes.
Kieran Chandler: Emmanuel, what are your thoughts? Are there also use cases that are under-exploited and could be more common in the future?
Kieran Chandler: With regards to deliveries and if it were to become a viable prospect for supply chains, how would that affect us in the future? How would we have to change our processes to take that into account?
Joannes Vermorel: It could become one more modality in the supply chain.
Kieran Chandler: You see, I believe that in general, supply chains are becoming more complex because there are more options. Drones are just another option. A decade ago, when you wanted to ship something from China, you had two options: either by sea or by air with regular air traffic. About five or six years ago, there was a train option, and now drones are just like that – you get one more option. You can have truck deliveries with a human driver or autonomous ones, and now you have the drone option.
Joannes Vermorel: The way I see it, companies will need to embrace a world with more options available, which I believe requires more automation. Right now, supply chain decisions are mostly made through Excel spreadsheets, which is fine if you have a straightforward landscape with not too many options. However, as soon as you start deciding on every single unit, like shipping a unit by a drone or something else, you need something dramatically better than Excel spreadsheets.
Drones allow you to think about delivering things unit by unit in a cheap and efficient way, which was impossible with truck deliveries. But suddenly, you have kind of exploded your inventory into millions of units, where you will need to make individual decisions.
Kieran Chandler: Let’s get back to the idea of safety. Currently, there aren’t many drones in the air, so from a safety perspective, you’ve got an individual pilot watching it, there’s autonomy, but it’s mostly just one thing in the air that has to avoid a few helicopters and planes. If we’re looking ahead to the future, when there are more drones and a higher volume of objects flying, can it really be safe?
Emmanuel de Maistre: Oh, for sure. We’ve found solutions for issues that are way more dangerous than drones. To ensure drones are safe for people and goods on the ground and for other aircraft in the air, we need to consider the air traffic. Drones will have to avoid potential collisions, which requires something called a UTM, or unmanned traffic management. Drones will need to be equipped with communication systems to communicate their position in real-time with some kind of automated air traffic control.
There are some technical challenges that haven’t been solved yet, but the size and weight of the sensors make me believe it’s an easy issue to solve. What won’t be easy is organizing that framework and these technologies among different countries, like Europe, the US, and Asia. It’s not going to be easy to make sure all these aviation authorities agree on the same principles. The European Aviation Authority is trying to harmonize everything in Europe, but it’s not quite synchronized with the US and Asia.
As for safety on the ground, drones will have to be equipped with a way to land safely or crash land safely, which might mean using parachutes.
Kieran Chandler: Are there any known safe landing areas for drones, in case they are not able to land in a controlled way? Are parachutes mainstream for drones today?
Emmanuel de Maistre: Parachutes are indeed mainstream for drones, but there are still safety measures that haven’t been developed or put in place so far. That’s another challenge to tackle.
Kieran Chandler: It’s interesting how drones could potentially revolutionize the way our cities look. From an economic perspective, is there a significant benefit to using a drone compared to a delivery vehicle and a driver?
Joannes Vermorel: Basic physics tells us that moving two tons of metal to deliver a 200-gram package is not very efficient. Trucks are more efficient per kilogram than drones because they don’t have to fly. However, in dense urban environments, most of the vehicle’s mass is moved around for no reason, making the last kilometer of the supply chain very wasteful. A smaller, autonomous vehicle could be a better solution, but there’s a minimum size needed for safety reasons. The value of the package and the speed of delivery also matter.
Emmanuel de Maistre: One company in California called Zipline has been successful in proving the use case for drones. They operate mostly in Africa, delivering blood samples and medicines in Rwanda and Kenya. In these countries, road conditions can make deliveries very slow, so drones are a valuable alternative.
Kieran Chandler: That’s an amazing use case I hadn’t considered. Let’s talk about the environmental perspective. When taking into account the cost of batteries and the drone’s lifespan, is there an environmental argument for using drones?
Emmanuel de Maistre: I’d say there probably is an environmental benefit, although we might not have all the publicly available data to make a thorough assessment. Drones, if properly used, have a long lifespan. In our company, we’ve used the same drone for three years, with hundreds of flights. Although you need to replace the batteries, the carbon emissions are very low or close to zero, as they use electricity. The environmental benefits can be significant, but there is also the question of social acceptance of drones, which should be taken into account.
Kieran Chandler: What are the environmental benefits of drone deliveries? Do you think people would want to hear the noise of drones flying overhead frequently?
Emmanuel de Maistre: Drones are quite noisy, and that’s something people do not think about when they speak about drone deliveries. It can be quite annoying, and it’s like noise pollution that should be taken into account.
Kieran Chandler: Joannes, can you really envisage a day where we’re incredibly used to having drones flying overhead, and it’s a normal future for us?
Joannes Vermorel: I suspect that probably the vast majority of drones might be very small, so you don’t notice them. Right now, the drone models are about this size, but if you think twenty years down the future, they might be much smaller, having the same capabilities. At that point, they will be 15 meters away, and you won’t see or hear them. They will do most of the imaging and other tasks but will be mostly invisible on purpose, which is a desirable quality. For the delivery drones, where physics says you need to carry 200 grams, you will probably need a drone that is twice the mass of the package. It can’t be impossibly small; it will be smaller but probably not vanishingly small. People would have smart tricks, like straight takeoff, so they reach 200 meters, and you don’t see them. I think there will be plenty of things, but I see that more remotely for the delivery drones. I still remain convinced that it will take more time to get there, except maybe for very high-value, high-emergency niche uses, such as medical supplies. Even in Paris, where it’s normally forbidden to fly over, there is one exception for helicopters for medical emergencies. In those cases, drones might be used rather than helicopters and maybe even to carry people, just because it would be faster to get a drone to take somebody who is injured back to a hospital instead of waiting for a helicopter.
Kieran Chandler: Emmanuel, would you agree with that? What can you see next for drones?
Emmanuel de Maistre: Drones will carry people one day, and it’s not science fiction. You already have unmanned helicopters, very heavy ones, carrying army supplies, especially in Afghanistan. These are real gas-powered helicopters. We will see first hybrid vehicles, probably carrying people, and I’m thinking about airport-to-city liaisons that might be a great use case to start such transportation. When you have to go very quickly from the airport to the city, you might envision some kind of hybrid helicopter carrying people from the airport to the heart of London, New York, or any other city in the world. In the longer term, I think it’s not crazy to think that maybe four to six passenger aircraft will carry people in a very autonomous way, whether they’re hybrid or fully electric. That will depend on the progress of batteries, but a lot of companies are working on it, and I see Airbus, Boeing, Uber, and many others betting on such use cases. It might not happen in the next few years, but if you look at the past five to ten years and what we’ve done in technology globally, it’s not crazy to think this type of use case will arrive in the next five to ten years as well.
Kieran Chandler: That’s exciting, and I wish that for sure. It’s exciting times to watch this space. I have to leave it there. Thanks both for your time. Thank you for tuning in, and we’ll see you again next time.