In Indonesia, delivering cargo to the farthest reaches of the world’s biggest archipelago has forever been a challenge. Now its biggest airline PT Garuda Indonesia sees a solution in drones.

It plans to procure 100 unmanned aerial vehicles from China’s Beihang UAS Technology to ship goods across the nation’s more than 18,000 islands. Director for Cargo and Business Development Mohammad Iqbal said that the state-run airline will operate the drones from 30 logistic centers, each with a dedicated airstrip, within five years. “This will totally change the landscape of the logistic industry in Indonesia,” Iqbal said in an interview at the company’s Jakarta headquarters. “The outlook for the cargo business in Indonesia is not just good, but very good,” he added.

According to Planning Minister Bambang Brodjonegoro, Indonesia is preparing to spend more than $400 billion by 2024 to strengthen its infrastructure and retain its lead as a key mining and manufacturing hub in Southeast Asia including 25 new airports, as part of the government’s Highway in the Sky plan to improve connectivity.

From September Garuda will conduct trials with three drones in the eastern part of the country which will last till the end of the year. Commercial runs will start early next year in the Maluku islands. The drones will fly seafood to Garuda’s cargo hub in Makassar for onward shipping to Hong Kong and Singapore.

Many parts of Indonesia are still inaccessible, despite massive investments in roads and bridges during President Joko Widodo’s first term- the eastern fringes, such as Papua island in particular. The difficult mountainous terrain there makes ground transportation extremely difficult and uneconomical. Bolstering its cargo operations would also help Garuda cope with falling passenger demand as a result of rising ticket prices, said Fahressi Fahalmesta, an analyst at PT Ciptadana Sekuritas Asia.

Unmanned Aerial Vehicle Harbin BZK-005

Garuda Indonesia Managing Director IGN Askhara Danadiputra said the acquisition of the BZK-005 drone was intended to develop the cargo business. “The drone that we want to bring is worth US $ 1 million per unit, while the ATR 72-600 alone is worth up to US $ 22 million per unit. That has not yet been calculated for other costs such as pilots and crew sets, “said Askhara, who plans to go to Beijing to see a review of the drone model.

He added that at the initial stage 3 units would be imported. Cargo shipping over long distances will still use conventional aircraft such as the A330-300 or B737-800 NG for medium distances.

Askhara Danadiputra said the reason for using the drone was because it was considered more efficient and minimized risk. On the other hand, investment in these aircraft is cheaper than conventional types. Askhara explained that weather conditions often change and the topography in Eastern Indonesia is often a challenge for conventional aircraft. The use of drones can minimize these risks.

The BZK-005 can carry a maximum payload of 150 kg. This drone holds the qualification as HALE (High Altitude Long Endurance), because it can fly to an altitude of 8,000 meters and the duration of continuous flight for more than 48 hours.

Harbin BZK-005 has a rather large dimension, even bigger than Singapore’s Heron drone. The maximum weight when take off reaches 1.25 tons, with the base of the drone propeller engine having a cruise speed of 150-180 km per hour. Although it can float at an altitude of 8,000 meters, the cruising altitude of BZK-005 is at the level of 5,000 – 7,000 meters.

With conventional airplane dimensions, the Harbin BZK-005 took off and landed from an ordinary runway. 600 meters of runway are needed for take off, and 500 meters are needed for landing. By the Chinese military, Harbin BZK-005 was called the Sea Eagle, and assumed the role of a naval drone.

So far, drones have only been used for military purposes to transport missiles. Beihang is the only manufacturer that produces drones for commercial use.

He added that cargo rates could not be lowered if the airline continued to use conventional aircraft. Moreover, the current cargo rate is only enough to cover operational costs.

The use of drones is considered more efficient because it does not require a lot of fuel. In addition, reducing employee costs in the form of crew sets as in conventional aircraft.

Fahalmesta said in a text message. “Cargo revenue has the potential to grow noticeably due to strong demand from the e-commerce business. Employing drones is a clear sign Garuda is paying more attention to improve its cargo revenue.”

Garuda would need government support to operate the drones. Not only would the military-grade machines have to use transmitters to relay their positions and other information, air-traffic controllers would need to be trained to manage the unmanned aircraft. The unmanned aircraft will further aid e-commerce in Southeast Asia’s biggest economy, where the rise of online shopping has boosted demand for logistics and shipping companies.

If BZK-005 is officially operated by Garuda Indonesia in the future, technically this national airline group has drones whose level is above the military spy / combat drone, because the drones that the TNI will acquire in the near future are drones still in MALE qualifications. (Medium Altitude Long Endurance).

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