Drones in supply chain & human mobility – will the pandemic start a new era?

Developments in air mobility are closely followed by a large and global community of professionals. Most of the public buzz is about the potential for manned air mobility such as air taxis adding to human micro-mobility, with far less discussion of unmanned air mobility solutions and drones. However, it is clear that there is enormous scope for such unmanned vehicles, with many use cases to be explored.


Part of the problem has been the unclear regulatory framework for vehicles such as drones—especially in Europe, where numerous regulatory regimes are in place. However, things are changing; in mid-2019, a new European framework harmonised national legislation, opening up many new areas of opportunity for pioneering drone transportation. According to McKinsey, “there is still a significant hurdle that needs to be overcome—the lack of a system for unmanned aircraft traffic management (UTM).” [1]

“For a UTM system to function, air-mobility solutions must be equipped with critical technologies, such as detect-and-avoid systems and navigational tools for environments where GPS does not function¬—all of which will require significant investment and testing. Regulatory compliance will also present hurdles such as safety concerns.” [2]

“Some air mobility solutions, including freight-delivery drones and passenger-transport drones, must fly in the airspace commonly used by manned commercial flights and general aviation aircraft. This means stakeholders cannot create UTM in isolation; instead, they must develop an integrated airspace-management system—one that can help air-mobility solutions avoid obstacles in any airspace, and comply with the multiple systems that govern flight rules. Such an integrated system will be technically challenging, since today’s airspace relies on robust traffic-management systems, as well as highly trained pilots and air-traffic controllers who navigate within different levels of the national airspace and eliminate any conflicts within these zones. Conversely, most future UTM solutions will automate many tasks, with human intervention limited to emergencies. 

With these constraints, the current role of drones used in commercial operations is limited. “The most mature unmanned-aerial-systems (UAS) applications—and the only ones where drones are widely used in either the corporate or the consumer sector—involve short-range surveillance, and the resulting photographs and videos.”[3]

However, there is no reason that the commercial use of drones cannot be extended. Enterprises such as the Dutch startup AVY are developing highly sophisticated drones, which could be used, for example, for the transport of medical products and seeds. Patrick Zaman, the founder of AVY, is enthusiastic about the potential of micro air freight: “The overall economic benefits of air mobility could be immense as new applications increase efficiency and productivity.”

“In fact, air-mobility solutions could transform commutes, package deliveries, and other mundane tasks in ways that would have seemed impossible only a few years ago, producing repercussions that go far beyond transport. Commuter drones could help reduce pollution and alleviate the housing crunch in urban areas by making distant suburbs a viable option for city workers. Rapid drone delivery could accelerate the already steep uptick in e-commerce and increase the bottom line for many companies.” [4] 

Although these are the most obvious possibilities from a consumer perspective, there are many more applications in the modern B2B world. One underexplored topic is embedding drones deep into the value chain, by making them part of industrial manufacturing supply chains. Another field is indoor applications, such as warehouse stocktaking.

But what role do drones currently play here? What are the economic drivers for employing more unmanned air mobility solutions in the value chain?

We asked some players in the transport business what to expect, and whether they anticipate a rise in the use of drone vehicles in the coming years, and their opinions ranged from sceptical to enthusiastic. 

One major cold chain solutions provider was hesitant when it came to large-scale applications compared to the cost of the infrastructure: “A good balance for ROI is as yet unclear.”

Naturally, drone manufacturers stress the versatility and range of possible applications: “Operating and maintaining drone fleets will produce only a fracture of the cost involved road fleet maintenance,” said an official from French drone manufacturer Parrot. 

“As with any industry, economic drivers will also shape demand. Indeed, companies may unlock the greatest value from drones that streamline operations and facilitate automation rather than the more headline-grabbing applications such as drone delivery and transport.” [5]

Moreover the aftermath of the current pandemic will also trigger a greater readiness to employ existing drone solutions in industrial supply chains since digitisation and automation of tasks are not only of economic value but also pose health benefits to employees. Like that reducing the human factor in industrial supply chains might hold benefits for business continuity and individual safety of the workforce. It is hard to predict whether the crisis could start a new era for drone solutions, but it will surely help to see the ample possibilities for application of the technology.

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[1] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/capital-projects-and-infrastructure/our-insights/air-mobility-solutions-what-theyll-need-to-take-off

[2] Idem.

[3] Idem.

[4] Idem.

[5] https://www.mckinsey.com/industries/capital-projects-and-infrastructure/our-insights/commercial-drones-are-here-the-future-of-unmanned-aerial-systems