When it comes to commercial applications, drone usage is still in its infancy. In delivery services, for example, drones are used only infrequently, and their use typically comes with stringent restrictions. However, we expect to see much broader use of drone-based delivery services over time.
A recent survey has revealed that 22% of supply chain leaders are currently or planning to invest in drones; up from 13% in 2018 and 8% in 2017. Delivery drones offer many benefits to both consumers and suppliers, including lower costs with the reduction of human labour. They can also access difficult geographies more easily as well as having the ability to speed up the delivery of goods and shorten delivery times.
The need for reliability
Currently, reliability remains the biggest obstacle to the widespread deployment of drones in a commercial setting. With respect to delivery services, in particular, a lack of reliability may lead to the loss of the drone, or of goods; reduced customer satisfaction, significant damage to brand reputation, or a combination of all four.
For governments and administrative authorities, a lack of reliability represents a danger to the general public (both from dropped goods and drones crashing). In the future, drones will need to become larger to ensure that they are able to carry heavier packages safely, but before this can happen, appropriate regulation will need to be put in place.
Standards developments and operating constraints
In line with this, as the use of drones is rolled out across logistics sectors, the evolution of standards and regulations will be key to their success. Moving forwards, operators will need to attain licences to fly some drones but, as we have already seen, the use of drones in a commercial context and in logistics in particular, is relatively new and the working methodologies are still emerging, so standards development remains in its earliest stages. Legislation around drone use is beginning to come on stream, however.
In June 2019, the EU published a package of regulations relating to unmanned aircraft systems use, which included certification for certain types of drones and their operators to ensure the safety of individuals. These come into effect in July 2020. Part of these regulations require operators to understand how meteorology impacts drone use and be familiar with IP Ratings. It is likely that in terms of IPX ratings (for water protection), delivery service teams will have little knowledge around what each rating indicates – at least at the outset.
In general terms, the IP Code, or Ingress Protection Code, IEC standard 60529 classifies and rates the degree of protection provided against, dust, intrusion, accidental contact, water and moisture. The first digit refers to solid particle protection, e.g. dust; the second refers to liquid ingress protection, e.g. rain. Additional letters may also be used. The use of the letter, M, for example, indicates the device was moving during the water test, e.g. the drone propellers were in motion.
What operators need to do
In line with evolving standards, operators need to consider reliability of the equipment and the constraints caused by wet weather conditions. They will need to ensure that if a drone has to land at any point, water intrusion is kept to a minimum to reduce damage to important components.
As operators go to manufacture drones, they will need to understand what can be done in terms of water protection at each IP rating. They will also need to know if the IPX rating they have chosen for their drone will be suitable for the task they are going to undertake. The reality is that they won’t necessarily need IPX8 (full immersion). In fact, IPX4 or IPX5 is typically enough to give rain protection.
How can providers help?
So how can providers play a role in educating drone users across the logistics market about the prevailing IPX ratings? They need to help them to understand what is the IP rating of the drone; how long that rating is expected to last and also what would compromise it, e.g. water protection achieved by the use of mechanical seals may be jeopardised by physical impact, but also usually degrades over time.
Providers can help ensure the reliability but also the protection of both the drone and the payload. Solutions should last the lifetime of the device. But equally as essential, if a drone is damaged then solutions should be easily reworkable. For example, thick conformal coatings can make repairability impossible by covering connectors. However, the use of modern nano coating technology not only ensures lifetime protection of the drone but also allows manufacturers to produce devices which are fully reworkable. Nano coatings protect PCBs and even whole devices from the inside out and eliminate the need for bulky mechanical seals which might make a drone difficult or unsafe to open.
Finally, providers can also make drones robust against changing weather conditions. They can help operators protect the drones if they are caught out in rain, so their capital outlay is not lost if they get into contact with water unexpectedly. This kind of service will help drone operators to deliver products in rain or challenging weather conditions, which gives them an edge over the competition, who may not be able to achieve that, and a key point of differentiation as they forge ahead into a fast-expanding new marketplace.