Volocopter teams up with Schenker to deploy heavy-lift drones

BERLIN — German startup Volocopter has teamed up with logistics group DB Schenker to deploy its heavy-lift drones, in a project that will gather vital practical flying experience before its air taxis enter service.

Volocopter is one of a fleet of startups developing battery-powered aircraft and, with full certification for its air taxi still a few years away, it wants to put its VoloDrone to work sooner.

The remote-controlled drone can lift a load of up to 200 kilograms (440 lbs.) and has a range of 40 kilometers (25 miles), making it ideal for jobs such as delivering medicines to a hospital or dropping off components at a factory.

“The logistics opportunity in the urban market is just as big as the passenger market,” Volocopter CEO Florian Reuter said in an interview.

And, while e-commerce giant Amazon and others have received U.S. approval to test drone deliveries to customers, the Volocopter-Schenker partnership is aimed at business-to-business.

“When people associate logistics with drones they always think of the 3 kg, last-mile delivery to the doorstep,” Reuter said. “It’s the middle mile, not the last mile, that we are serving.”

Schenker picked Volocopter after backing the nine-year-old startup’s 87 million-euro ($103 million) funding round in February. In total, Volocopter has raised 122 million euros from investors.

“Drones are a technology that would allow us to rethink supply chains for city logistics,” said Schenker CEO Jochen Thewes. “Our common goal is to have a commercial proof case up and running in 2021.”

Volocopter has just started selling tickets to fly on its VoloCity air taxi, at 300 euros for a 15-minute ride. Yet although the piloted aircraft has been put through its paces in demonstration flights, fans will have to wait until it enters commercial service.

Full certification from the European Union Aviation Safety Agency (EASA) is expected for the 18-rotor VoloCity air taxi towards the end of 2022. The VoloDrone, with a similar design, should follow in 2023, Reuter said.

It will be possible to apply sooner for permits to fly the VoloDrone on a case-by-case basis – a task that can easily be handled by Schenker staff with basic training on a simulator.

“Any Schenker employee in a distribution center will be able to operate this,” said Reuter. “It will be as common as having a driving license.”

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