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Cloudline airships offer greener, low-cost last-mile logistics, monitoring solution

2nd July 2023

By: Tracy Hancock

Creamer Media Contributing Editor

     

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Local deep tech company Cloudline has secured venture funding from the Raba Partnership, 4Di, Enza Capital, and Schmidt Futures (a philanthropic initiative founded by Eric and Wendy Schmidt) to develop and launch the first three deployments of its autonomous airship. The team has already secured regulatory approval in South Africa for the aircraft.

Autonomous airships rewrite the rules and cost structure for aerial operations in populated and remote locations and promise to provide critical infrastructure globally, starting with Africa, explains Cloudline founder Spencer Horne.

“We are thrilled to bring a greener, safer, and wider reaching form of aerial autonomy to the market, with game-changing unit economics that unlock new use cases across the globe."

A mechanical engineer from Harvard who parlayed his lifelong passion for aeronautics and global experience at global management consultant McKinsey into a vision for aerial applications that radically alter the economics of at-scale monitoring and last mile logistics, Horne highlights that Cloudline’s airships have multiple key advantages over standard drones and fixed-wing aircraft.

“Our energy efficient airships, which use solar-cell-powered electric motors and onboard batteries, can hover for hours or days to perform aerial monitoring and will carry up to 100 kg of cargo, which is ten times the capacity of commercial drones.”

These factors create a lower cost (and lower environmental impact) solution in markets where the cost of monitoring and last-mile logistics are some of the highest in the world, owing to poor infrastructure.

 

Infrastructure Monitoring

High-voltage transmission lines are the backbone of power grids and are an essential piece of infrastructure to bring more renewable energy generated power to consumers. However, their upkeep can be challenging and expensive, especially when running through remote and hard to reach areas.

“Monitoring has traditionally been conducted either from the ground by foot or car, where servitude roads permit, or by flying overhead in helicopters. Ground monitoring, although slow and tedious, typically yields high fidelity data for detecting line issues. Helicopter flying is significantly faster, but also captures less granular data, owing to the speed of scanning,” explains Horne.

Cloudline airships can match the range of manned aircraft, but can fly low and slow to capture high-resolution, high-fidelity imaging, while carrying multi-sensor payloads that can generate rich data overlays.

 

Mapping and Surveying

Cloudline airships may be deployed in wide area mapping and surveying with 20 times higher resolution than satellites and data delivery in real-time.

Multi-sensor payloads, including light detection and ranging visual and multispectral cameras, enable the capture of comprehensive and precise spatial data, providing robust terrain models for applications ranging from urban planning and precision agriculture to scientific research. “The ability to cover vast areas, using solar power to achieve prolonged flight times, allows for continuous data collection even in remote and inaccessible locations, ensuring an unprecedented level of accuracy and richer datasets than any other mode,” states Horne.
 

Environmental Data Capture

“In the arena of environmental data collection, Cloudline’s airships unlock new opportunities to reduce environmental impact and to build resilience in response to the effects of climate change,” he says.

Different sensor types on a single aircraft gather vital data on air quality, water quality, and land pollution to measure and improve climate interventions. Beyond real-time insights and alerts, the airships can access areas ravaged by disaster and provide key intelligence for faster and more effective response. The quiet, non-intrusive nature of the aircraft allows data capture with the smallest possible impact on communities and nature.

 

Wildlife Management and Conservation

“Cloudline’s autonomous airships offer transformative solutions for wildlife management and anti-poaching efforts. They enable a nondisruptive method of monitoring diverse species in their natural habitats and tracking their movements over time, aiding in the understanding and preservation of biodiversity,” adds Horne.

Equipped with advanced imaging technology, the airships can detect and track illegal activities such as poaching, logging, or any unusual movement patterns, providing real-time data to authorities.

This ability could dramatically improve wildlife protection strategies and significantly reduce the risks faced by ecosystems, Horne emphasises.

“Cloudline’s airships could also substitute several key helicopter activities, which, until now, have been key to wildlife management, albeit at a high monetary and carbon cost.”

Cloudline has existing and pending deployments in Kenya to facilitate medical supply delivery, rural Namibia for reverse logistics of diagnostics and in South Africa and Mozambique to enable emergency connectivity to remote populations for the World Food Program.

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