UK aerospace sector identifies drone delivery growth opportunity

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There is increased appetite for ‘low space’ innovation and more investment into the fast-track testing of robots and drones in the UK, according to a new European aerospace study published today.

Protolabs’ Horizon Shift report, involving 325 aerospace business leaders in Europe, found that 78% of companies questioned from the UK believe that disruption in the form of drones represents the sector’s best opportunity for future growth.

This figure from the UK outperformed its peers in Italy (75%), France (64%) and Germany (57%).

The study also citied challenges posed by Covid-19 as a key driver accelerating the viability and acceptance of the technology.

Some 78% of aerospace companies questioned from the UK believe that disruption in the form of drones represents the sector’s best opportunity for future growth.

More than half of companies questioned (53%) believe commercial drone deliveries will be commonplace by 2023, as the public and private sectors seek safe ways to guarantee services whilst containing the spread of any viruses.

“Covid-19 has brought huge disruption to the global economy, with the aerospace sector being among the hardest hit,” said Bjoern Klaas, vice president and managing director of Protolabs Europe.

“However, a crisis can act as a catalyst for further innovation, forcing organisations to seek alternative ways to survive in rapidly changing times.

“Our report shows that right now within aerospace, the ‘low space’ sector is demonstrating agility in its approach to innovation and there is a real appetite to see it work in the UK.

“In fact the UKSA, the government agency responsible for the UK’s civil space programme, just announced a new drive to fund space-enabled technology to strengthen the NHS response to coronavirus.

“Drone technology can help meet challenges, such as delivering test kits, masks, gowns and goggles, in the management of infectious disease outbreaks.”

He continued: “Commercial drone deliveries are the most likely disruptor and this was reinforced across the duration of our study, which was carried out as the Covid-19 pandemic started to take grip.

“In just a few weeks, the appetite for this technology increased by 11% to 53%.

“Depending on legislation and advances in technology, it’s feasible that last-mile delivery of products, through drones, could reach up to 30% of citizens across Europe.

“Furthermore, nearly a third of people feel that urban mobility will be a viable mode of transport in the next three years.”

Despite the positive outlook, obstacles stand in the way of companies operating in low space: cost of initial investment over return on investment is seen as the biggest challenge by a third of respondents, followed by technology integration and issues caused by inflexible supply chains.

Detailed testing programmes and product development cycles are the main barrier to innovation, whilst risk management and an inability to learn from failures could also stifle progress.

More than a third of companies want investment in STEM education, improved international regulation/collaboration and increased government support.

The Protolabs “Horizon Shift’ report was completed during March and April and involved aerospace professionals – senior management, R&D, engineering design, technology and supply chain management – from France, Germany, Italy and the UK.

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