Leading German freight forwarder Hellmann will start using unmanned planes operated by Bulgaria's Dronamics from next year to speed up deliveries of vital goods in Europe and work around stretched supply chains, executives involved say.
Global disruptions due to COVID, reduced air activity and major congestion at ports due in part to backed up container ships have upended logistics networks over the past year with companies looking for ways to ease pressure.
Hellmann Worldwide Logistics said using drone planes developed by Dronamics was "a real game changer".
"At the moment we are seeing a lot of sea freight being converted into air freight around the world which is underscoring the need for urgent transport options for cargo," Jan KleineLasthues, COO airfreight with Hellmann Worldwide Logistics, told Reuters.
"This does not mean that tomorrow we will fly 80% of our freight by drones, but for transports within continental Europe, this is an important addition."
KleineLasthues said the drones worked well for transporting urgent goods including machinery spare parts, vaccines, plasma and other pharmaceuticals.
The unmanned planes, which will commence commercial flights in 2022, can carry 350 kg (772 pounds) of cargo and travel up to 2,500 km (1,553 miles).
The drones, which require 400 meters of airport space to take off and land, will only fly between air terminals.
Svilen Rangelov, chief executive of Dronamics, said the company had signed up 39 airports in 13 European countries so far.
He said the plan was to deploy 60 unmanned planes in 2022 for a number of customers including Hellmann.
"Our airplanes use a standard engine that is already certified and regulators are very familiar with, so we try and remove as much of the risk as possible," he said.
"We are working on several solutions including encryption to make sure we are not vulnerable to attacks like GPS spoofing or hacking," he added.
(Editing by Mark Potter)