The rise of drones for moving both people and parcels around the country allows Australia to look to the skies in an effort to tackle its transport challenges.

Some people only associate drones with UAVs – Unmanned Aerial Vehicles – undertaking activities such as aerial reconnaissance, photography, and mapping. Yet drones continue to improve in their capacity to carry heavier payloads further distances. This creates the opportunity for drones to play a key role in alternative transport and smart mobility initiatives, moving both cargo and passengers from A to B.

CONTENTS

What is drone transportation?

The ability to deliver parcels has opened up a range of new applications for drones, but the development of larger models designed to carry passengers challenges the traditional definition of UAVs.

The new generation of drones capable of transporting people are generally known as “passenger drones”, perhaps leaving the modern definition of drone as “an aerial vehicle without a human pilot”. As a result, Australia’s Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) now uses the term RPA (Remotely Piloted Aircraft) rather than UAV when referring to drones.

Similar to autonomous vehicles on the road, autonomous passenger drones can be limited to ferrying passengers between fixed points, or else be granted a greater autonomy in order to carry passengers to any destination.

When it comes to transporting people, some passenger drones will be designed for short hops, while others such as the Ehang VT-30 Long Range Passenger Drone are designed to carry two passengers up to three hundred kilometres. This makes drones practical for carrying passengers to their final destination, or on just one leg of a multimodal journey, such as travelling from home or nearby “vertiport” drone landing pad to a transport hub such as an airport.

What are drone transport technologies?

Drones come in a range of configurations, depending on the tasks they must perform, the distance they need to travel and the nature of their destination.

Fixed-wing drones look similar to an aeroplane and are designed for long endurance and fast flight speeds, and are capable of reaching high altitudes and carrying heavy payloads. They can run on batteries or combustion engines and are energy efficient thanks to the wings providing lift.

This makes fixed-wing drones well-suited to reconnaissance-style missions. While they are capable of carrying heavy payloads, one complexity is that they require a suitable landing strip.
To get back in the air, they generally require a catapult or hand-launching. This makes fixed-wing drones most practical for delivering goods between fixed points equipped with landing and launching facilities.

Single-rotor drones look similar to a helicopter, sometimes featuring a tail rotor to control direction and stability. Running on batteries or combustion engines, they’re also capable of carrying heavy payloads and travelling long distances.

Like a helicopter, the advantage of rotor-based drones is the ability to hover, as well as perform vertical take-off and landing (VTOL). This makes them more practical for delivering goods to various locations which don’t have landing and launching facilities.

Single-rotor drones tend to rely on long blades, which can present safety issues when operating around people. Reliance on a single rotor can also create stability issues in rough weather or during rough landings.

Multi-rotor drones such as quadcopters run on batteries and support shorter flight times and smaller payloads. They also tend to be considerably more affordable and easier to operate than fixed-wing and single-rotor drones.

The increased stability of multi-rotor drones makes them well-suited to aerial photography, as well as flying and landing in challenging conditions. They offer the benefit of vertical take-off and landing, with their smaller blades making them better suited to operating in confined areas and around people.

Fixed-wing hybrid VTOL drones aim to offer the best of both worlds. Running on batteries or combustion engines, they can carry heavy payloads and travel long distances, plus they offer the benefit of vertical take-off and landing. Relying on multiple small rotors improves safety and stability in confined areas and around people.

While they are not perfect at either hovering or forward flight, this combination makes fixed-wing hybrid VTOL drones well-suited to delivering parcels. Amazon and Google currently use them for parcel delivery in urban areas.

Drones categorised according to their take-off and flight behaviour

Drones categorised according to their take-off and flight behaviour. Image source: CASA

What are the benefits of drone transport?

When it comes to deliveries, drone transport offers a range of potential advantages compared to traditional delivery methods.

Taking to the air can reduce delivery times compared to travelling by road, thanks to the ability to take a direct route and avoid congestion on the roads. This is particularly advantageous when it comes to time-sensitive deliveries, such as hot food. Avoiding the need to employ drivers also helps delivery companies reduce labour costs.

Relying on battery-powered drones rather than delivery vans with combustion engines delivers environmental benefits. Staying off the roads also helps reduce traffic congestion, which offers a range of flow-on effects for road users from decreased travel times to reduced fuel bills and carbon emissions.

When it comes to long-range deliveries, drones offer the ability to access hard-to-reach locations, particularly thanks to vertical take-off and landing capabilities. This offers more accurate delivery of supplies than relying on aerial drops.

When it comes to transporting people, drones can also cut down on travel times and avoid road congestion, particularly when travelling to busy areas. Eliminating pilots reduces labour costs, while handing control over to autonomous systems is potentially safer than allowing consumers to pilot flying vehicles.

What are the challenges of drone transport?

Taking to the skies is not without its challenges as drones vie to be part of Australia’s transport mix.

Capacity limitations around the bulk and weight that drones can handle will continue to make some deliveries impractical – whether they be single large items, or a large collection of small items. The fragile nature of some products will also make them unsuitable for drone delivery.

Considering a drone’s capacity challenges, the economics (in terms of both money and energy usage) of relying on drones to make small deliveries across a populated area will not always stack up against loading those parcels into a single delivery truck. Hybrid drone/truck last-mile delivery planning offers the potential to optimise drone usage.

Over-reliance on drones in highly-populated areas could also contribute to local air traffic congestion. As with road congestion, this could make drone usage less attractive by increasing travel times and energy consumption, while also increasing the likelihood of collisions and other accidents. Drones also present a risk to wildlife.

Meanwhile, weather conditions such as wind, rain, snow, and fog can hamper drone flights. Extreme temperatures can also impact their performance. In different regions of the country, weather conditions will limit the ability to depend on drones as a reliable delivery method during different parts of the year.

Drone also present safety challenges, particularly when flown near people, over built-up areas and potentially in close proximity to other drones and flying vehicles. There are also public acceptance issues when it comes to noise pollution, with Australian drone delivery trials sparking some complaints.

These safety and reliability concerns are even more important when it comes to passenger drones, considering both the safety of onboard passengers and that of other people in the vicinity, including other aircraft passengers. Placing vertiports in populated areas will also create noise issues and regulators will need to strike the right balance between safety, public convenience and innovation.

What are the drone transport regulations?

The Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) has issued regulations for both recreational and commercial drone operators in an effort to keep Australia’s skies safe for all.

Depending on the weight of a drone and where they are flying it, commercial operators require operator accreditation or a remote pilot licence. Additionally, all commercially-flown drones must be registered, regardless of weight.

Drones must avoid prohibited and restricted airspace, plus those weighing more than 250 grams cannot fly within 5.5 kilometres of a controlled airport (which generally means an airport with a control tower). They may be operated within 5.5 km of a non-controlled airport or helicopter landing site, but only if they remain outside the airfield boundary and there are no crewed aircraft flying in the area. If a crewed aircraft is approaching or departing, the drone must land as soon as safely possible.

As a general rule, drones must not fly in crowded areas and must stay at least 30 metres away from people. They must not fly over or above people at any time or at any height, for example over a crowded beach, busy road, sporting event, concert or wedding.

An altitude restriction of 120 metres applies and drones can only be flown during the day with the operator maintaining line of sight with the drone. Operating drones above this height and/or beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) requires additional CASA approval, which includes a risk assessment.

In addition to CASA’s rules, different states also have additional rules around drone use.

What are drone transport applications?

While many of the early commercial drone use cases revolved around aerial reconnaissance, the ability to carry and deploy heavier payloads has opened up a range of transport applications.

Making urgent deliveries such as medical supplies to remote or otherwise inaccessible regions makes the most of drones’ advantages compared to other forms of transport. Australia’s Swoop Aero, which provides medical drone deliveries in Africa, has launched a program in Australia with TerryWhite Chemmart to deliver pharmacy goods to rural Australian communities.
Drones can also be used for pathology deliveries, with Swoop Aero providing direct delivery of samples from local medical or pathology centres to hospitals and testing laboratories.

iMOVE is also involved in plans to develop and trial custom-made, state-of-the-art medical drones with a flying range of up to 250 km, to be used for the delivery of medicine in the Northern Territory.

The speed and convenience of drones also make them attractive for delivering online shopping. Wing Aviation, owned by Google, has been trialling drone deliveries in Canberra and Brisbane’s City of Logan, which includes a partnership with online food ordering company DoorDash. Wing Aviation launched a fourth location in the Gold Coast suburb of Ormeau, in a “store-to-door” partnership with Coles.

As part of Wing Aviation’s BVLOS approval, CASA has permitted it to operate drones in closer proximity to people than its regulations normally allow. They don’t land at customers’ homes, instead they lower deliveries on a seven-metre cable and leave them on the ground.

Other drone operators globally include Antwork, Flytrex, Manna, Matternet, Skyports, and Zipline.

Along with business-to-consumer deliveries, drones also have the potential for business-to-business deliveries and intra-business deliveries as part of supply chain logistics.

When it comes to carrying passengers, the applications for drones can be divided into air metro, air taxi and private.

Under an air metro model, Drones could provide low-capacity public transport services along scheduled routes between major destinations where the advantages of drones outweigh those of road transport.

Air taxis could provide an on-demand service, either providing door-to-door service or travelling between vertiports. In the latter scenario, passenger drones could provide one leg of a multimodal journey. Uber has chosen Melbourne as the first site outside the US to trial its Uber Air electric autonomous helicopter service.

Passenger drones could also offer private transport, similar to private helicopter ownership but without the need to employ a pilot. Again, they could travel door-to-door or between vertiports.

What is the future of drone transportation?

Applications for drones in the transport sector look set to scale, particularly driven by disruptive businesses which are looking to expand their services and improve customer experience whilst reducing their reliance on human labour.

Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, has begun drone delivery trials in the US and has pledged to deliver 500 million packages each year by drone from 2030. It is working towards the goal of delivering orders by drone in less than 60 minutes.

Uber has previously stated that Uber Air trial cities Melbourne, Los Angeles and Dallas will require around 1,000 autonomous helicopters and 83 “skyport” landing pads per city in order to be effective. It is working with half a dozen aerospace companies on prototype craft to be used as part of its air taxi service.

Drones: Australian opportunities, risks, and challenges

iMOVE’s The future of drones in Australia webinar, held on 11 May 2023 is a presentation of the methods and findings from the Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia project. This project was with the Department of Infrastructure, Transport, Regional Development, Communications and the Arts, and researchers from the University of South Australia. Hear from the project leaders, outcomes from the project, where and how drones are expected to benefit most, public acceptance and areas of concern, and the opportunities for additional research.

Or read the final report from that project, at: The future of drones in Australia

Careers in drones

If you’re interested in pursuing a career in this area of transport, our interview series Meet Smart Mobility Experts could help guide you.

In this series we interview a number of researchers, practitioners, department of transport executives and more. Amongst other things we cover their academic background, research activity, career progression, and more.

Rebecca Ludgate - NT Chief Remote Drone Pilot flying drone

Rebecca Ludgate is the Chief Remote Drone Pilot for Charles Darwin University (CDU) on the iMOVE project trialling state-of-the-art medical drones, Integrating drones into NT Health. In this interview we find out what goes on behind the scenes, including the pre-flight checks, communications, remote flying, and training the next generation of remote drone pilots.

Read the interview at: Chief Remote Drone Pilot takes health project to new heights

Drone transport resources

Here’s a selection of Australian strategy and project documents on the topic of drone transport.

Drones: Facts and figures

Drone history

  • 1973: Abraham Karem built the first fully functional drone for Israel, which used them initially for surveillance. Significant improvements were made to the capabilities of the technology for models such as the Mastiff and IAA Scout series, which enabled military commanders to increase their situational awareness in warzones.
  • 1987: Yamaha demonstrated an R-50, considered to be the first UAV for dusting crops.
  • 1996: The US introduced the Predator drone, which followed from the contribution of Abraham Karem. This drone deeply influenced the general public’s perceptions about the immense capabilities of drones to strike targets with precision and power.
  • 2006: Predator drones equipped with thermal scanners capable of detecting humans from 10,000 feet height were first employed for civilian use.
  • 2013: Amazon’s Chief Executive Officer Jeff Bezos announced it was considering using drones for delivery services.
  • 2015: DJI released the first commercial quadcopter Phantom 1. One such small drone crashed on the lawn of the White House.
  • 2016: Laws were enacted to control the use of commercial drones by the FAA in the US, and similar laws were passed in the UK and Sweden.
  • 2018: The first civilian use of beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) technology with radar was approved by the FAA on 16 October for Avitas Systems, a GE venture company, to fly a UAS over 55 pounds for visual inspections at low altitudes without a visual observer.
  • 2019: Wing, a company owned by Alphabet Inc, started drone delivery service in Australia. Volocopter demonstrated advanced air mobility (AAM) capability in 2019 with a 3-minute flight over Singapore’s Marina Bay waterfront.
  • 2020: The European Aviation Safety Agency set out European Union regulations concerning civilian drone use. Some of the restrictions concerning drone use were eased in the US. The Civil Aviation Authority of Singapore authorised the first commercial BVLOS drone delivery service in Singapore by a startup, F-drones, to deliver medical supplies from shore to ship for shipping giant Eastern Pacific Shipping.
  • 2022: Volocopter and Skyports signed a Memorandum of Understanding with the Singapore Government to establish an AAM hub at Seletar Aerospace Park. Volocopter announced it would launch an air taxi service in Singapore in 2024. Percepto became the first company to secure a nationwide waiver from having to obtain site-specific approval to operate BVLOS drones across the US.

Source: Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia: Geographic, demographic and social insights, downloadable at: The future of drones in Australia

Drone uptake

  • the uptake of drone technology in Australia will depend upon the rate and scale of technology development and readiness. A few technological and operational challenges remain to be resolved. For example, battery life, drone performance in inclement weather, constraints on payloads, high initial costs and a lack of trained personnel continue to be factors that limit drone applications
  • uptake will depend on market readiness. For drone technology to gain widespread application, it is necessary to identify clear and compelling value propositions to potential end-users, such as time and cost savings and increased safety
  • Australia’s geographic and demographic profile, with its strong, open economy, low population density and large rural areas, creates opportunities for the use of drones. Experts expect that regional areas, more than urban areas, will benefit most by adopting drone technology since it will reduce isolation.

Source: Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia: Geographic, demographic and social insights, downloadable at: The future of drones in Australia

Drone economics

Drones will result in:

  • $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.
  • Cost savings of $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.

Source: Drones.gov.au, Data and research

  • In Australia, it has been estimated that even a medium level of drone uptake can boost the country’s productivity to a significant extent in the next few decades and that successful uptake will create 5,500 new jobs every year and boost real gross domestic product (GDP) by A$14.5 billion with a cost saving of A$9.3 billion across all sectors between 2020 and 2040 (Deloitte Access Economics, 2020)
  • The potential market for drone-based delivery services in Australia is estimated to be half a billion dollars by 2040 (Deloitte Access Economics, 2020).

Source: Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia: Geographic, demographic and social insights, downloadable at: The future of drones in Australia

Drones in use in Australia

  • The rescue of koalas affected by bushfires with the aid of drones in the Wimmera region of Victoria, Australia
  • A farm in Queensland (QLD) has experimented using a drone to deposit tens of thousands of sunflower seeds and claimed to record the first flower in the world planted by a drone. The drone distributed 45,000 seeds per hectare with the aim of sprouting 30,000 plants.
  • Jamin Fleming, from Bundaberg, QLD, has been using drones for spraying to control pests, weeds and diseases as a service for farmers since June 2020. Apart from being better able to reach the top of canopies, the drones could reduce the use of chemicals by 30% and water by 90%, and they were able to reduce carbon emissions from heavy diesel machinery, which would otherwise pollute the environment.
  • In 2022 Alphabet’s Wing reached the figure of 100,000 deliveries in Logan, Queensland. According to Wing, the deliveries have included, among other food items, 10,000 cups of coffee and 1,700 snack packs for children.
  • Transport for New South Wales (TfNSW) has been conducting trials using drones and 3D mapping software to inspect bridges and identify maintenance requirements. Sphere Drones, an Australian drone company, has been successfully trialling this technology at bridges across NSW, including the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Gladesville Bridge.
  • The Western Australian Police Force used drones in 2020 to deliver public announcements at beaches, parks, café strips and other public places to assist in the enforcement of COVID-19-related rules, such as social distancing.
  • In 2021 the NSW Government spent about A$57 million on technology and IT systems, including 30 drones for live streaming thermal images to incident command, in order to better inform firefighters. The drones can also drop fireballs to allow for better bushfire management.
  • Fire Rescue Victoria created an aviation unit in 2021 that is equipped with drone technology to assist in firefighting and other emergency services. The unit has four drones that support high-definition thermal imaging and the live streaming of videos, can fly for 30 minutes and can withstand strong winds. The unit is staffed by drone pilots and aviation-trained personnel as well as specialist firefighters.
  • During Tasmania’s Huonville floods in July 2016, the Department of Primary Industries, Parks, Water and Environment in Tasmania used drones to capture and map information relating to more than 80 ha of flood-affected land, enabling the State Government to determine the full extent of the deluge and for the Department to better direct its response and recovery efforts. Within minutes, an accurate picture of the number of private properties and schools affected, their locations were determined and immediate actions were taken, using the high-definition 3D imagery from drones. Imagery during and after the event helped to create modelling that would be essential to help mitigate future risks.
  • In NSW Surf Life Saving’s 2018/19 drone trials, the drones covered approximately 25,000 km, flew nearly 9,000 flights with over 2000 hours of flying, observed approximately 350 sharks, and evacuated beaches on 48 occasions.
  • In the 2020/21 SharkSmart drone trial run by the Queensland Government and Surf Life Saving Queensland, there were 3,669 drone flights, covering a distance of 1,468 kilometres, sighting 174 sharks sighted, including 48 large sharks estimated at over 2m in length. This trial is to continue until 2025, The trial will continue until 2025 across locations in the Sunshine Coast, Gold Coast, Minjerribah, Rainbow Beach and Townsville regions.
  • Charles Darwin University is working with First Nations rangers in trialling thermal imaging drones to track the endangered black-footed rock-wallaby species in the Kimberley region of Western Australia to save them from extinction.
  • Australian company AirSeed Technologies has trialled drone seeding to help plant trees on the scale needed to support struggling koala populations in Australia.
  • Karen Joyce, a researcher from QLD, Australia, found that instead of satellites, drones are increasingly being used to create maps, which are particularly useful for the conservation of the Great Barrier Reef. They offer the flexibility to capture data at preferred times. With the help of drones, her team has collected data over the Heron Reef study site and can now quantify changes occurring at very fine spatial scales, with which they previously had difficulties.
  • In late 2022 Australian company AMSL Aero, founded by Andrew Moore and Siobhan Lyndon, secured A$23 million from institutional investors to develop a hydrogen-powered version of its Vertiaa prototype and take it to commercial production. Given its estimated range of 1,000 km on hydrogen fuel and cruising speed of 300 km/hr, it is said to possibly be the world’s most efficient eVTOL powered by clean electricity and hydrogen fuel.

Source: Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia: Geographic, demographic and social insights, downloadable at: The future of drones in Australia

Best industry prospects for drones in Australia

  • Advanced air mobility: airport taxi trips, other taxi trips and intercity trips.
  • Freight and last-mile deliveries: delivery of express parcels, food deliveries, imported pharmaceutical deliveries (with high value/low weight), regional and remote pathology drone deliveries, medical deliveries in remote areas and some cargo/airfreight.
  • Government and community services: emergency ambulance response, fire response, search and rescue, border patrol, local law enforcement, disaster management and monitoring, conservation management, mapping and research.
  • Environment management: Drones can generate data, which was previously prohibitively expensive or technically challenging and is priceless in helping to arrest loss of biodiversity.
  • Agriculture: crop, livestock and large land monitoring, and crop spraying/pellet application.
  • Mining and resources: stockpile measurement/geotechnical modelling, blast and mine reclamation monitoring, and equipment inspection.
  • Defence: direct warfare and surveillance activities.
  • Construction and infrastructure sectors: inspections of, for example, power lines, bridges and rail.
  • Recreation and entertainment: recreational flights, photography and filming.

Source: Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia: Geographic, demographic and social insights, downloadable at: The future of drones in Australia

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What is iMOVE doing in the area of drones?

From the Validating the benefits of increased drone uptake for Australia project, iMOVE produced the final report, The Future of Drones in Australia.

iMOVE is also involved with a PhD considering hybrid drone/truck last mile delivery planning for e-groceries, plus it has undertaken an empirical analysis of drone ecosystems in 4PL logistics. In conjunction with RMIT, iMOVE has investigated a novel method of using a long tether and a medium fixed-wing drones to deliver multiple packages at various weights.

In terms of health, iMOVE is involved in Australia’s first drone trial for medical supplies in remote areas, in partnership with the NT Government Department of Health and Charles Darwin University (CDU).

Additionally, we’re readying Australia’s next generations of experts and practitioners to help make Australian skies prepare for drone transport via our Undergraduate Student Industry and Industry PhD programs.

What impact iMOVE is having in the area of drones?

As mentioned above, iMOVE, the Northern Territory Department of Health, and Charles Darwin University are conducting a trial looking to deliver medicine to remote NT communities. It’s important work as these communities have an urgent need for this service, and this trial sees drones take on the issues of long distance, harsh and variable weather, and strict air safety regulations. The success of this trial opens up this form of delivery to the many sparsely populated regions of Australia.

Taking a very much wider view, or report on the Future of drones in Australia report takes a snaphot of what’s happening in the drone space now, what trials are taking place, and what State, Territory, andFedral governments can support the future growth of drone use. Key benfits and challenges are outlines, and recommendations are made.

This mode of transport can both save and make money, and grow employment. All of this in a wide range of sectors, including advanced air mobility, environmental management, freight and last-mile delivery, public services, agriculture, mining and resources, construction and recreation, and entertainment.

Contact iMOVE

There’s still a lot of work to be done to make Australian transport systems safer. If you’d like to talk to us about any R&D work in the area of drones please get in touch with us to start a discussion.

iMOVE drone projects

iMOVE, along with its partners, is active in carrying out R&D to advance drone technologies and implementation in Australia.

Please find below the three latest drone projects. Or click to view all iMOVE’s drone projects.

VIEW ALL PROJECTS

iMOVE drone PhD projects

In addition to iMOVE and its partners’ drone projects listed above, as part of our Industry PhD Program businesses, universities and PhD students work on an agreed topic over a three-year period.

These are the three most recent PhD projects that have been undertaken on the topic of drones. Click to view all iMOVE’s drone PhD projects.

VIEW ALL PROJECTS

iMOVE drone articles

In addition to projects, iMOVE also publishes articles, thoughtpieces, case studies, etc. that cover the many issues and solutions around drones.

Below are the three most recent articles. Or click to view all iMOVE’s drone articles.

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