Drones represent UK aerospace sector’s “best opportunity” for future growth

Posted on 7 May 2020 by Jonny Williamson

Challenges posed by Covid-19 are accelerating the willingness to embrace drone technology and the UK is leading the way, according to a new European aerospace study.

Almost four-fifths of UK aerospace companies (78%) are convinced that disruption in the form of drones represents the sector’s best opportunity for growth in the future, outperforming opinions in Italy (75%), France (64%) and Germany (57%).

That’s one of key findings of Protolabs’ inaugural Horizon Shift report, which highlights an increased appetite for ‘low space’ innovation and more investment into the fast-track testing of robots and drones.

Taking in responses from more 320 aerospace business leaders from across Europe, over half (53%) believe commercial drone deliveries will be commonplace by 2023, as both the public and private sector seek safe ways to guarantee services while containing the spread of any viruses.

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

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

He continued: “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.”

The report suggests that commercial drone deliveries are the most likely disruptor, with the appetite for the technology significantly as the Covid-19 pandemic took hold.

Klaas noted: “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.”

However, despite the positive outlook, there are a number of obstacles standing 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; closely followed by technology integrations and issues caused by inflexible supply chains.

Detailed testing programmes and product development cycles are the main barrier to innovation, while 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.

Disruptive Times

Disruption was a core theme throughout the survey, with 62% of respondents saying that disruptive technologies were making their companies more competitive.

Advances in technology will also unlock the value migration to new business models, including faster charging of lithium-ion batteries (59%), artificial intelligence (59%) and battery storage (58%).

Bjoern concluded: “There are real opportunities for suppliers to look at ways they can deliver parts that can be used in this transition, while exploring material applications that deliver the lightweight savings and optimum performance required.”