Last Month, Finance Colombia reported on British drone operator Skyports’ decision to launch commercial drone operations in Colombia, backed commercial aviation developer Irelandia Aviation.
To dive deeper into Skyports’ strategy and plans for Colombia, Finance Colombia Executive Editor Loren Moss had a conversation with Daniel Salamanca, Skyports Colombia’s general manager.
Finance Colombia: Help us to understand a little bit about Skyports as a company. Why did you choose Colombia, and what can we expect to see here in Colombia?
Daniel Salamanca: So I can tell you a little bit about my background, I am an aeronautical engineer. I have worked for approximately seven years where I have developed different types of processes, especially in the industrial area here in the country and one of the first projects I participated in was with the government where through smaller drones, we used drones for laboratory sample transportation. That was the first test concept that we tried here in the country.
Latin America is a very dynamic place for these types of tests. Possibly people relate [to drones] more as a hobby or for audio-visual production than as a professional thing, but the impact that drones are having in the Industrial sector are changing industries. It’s a game-changing factor in the technology sector, it is very important.
“It’s not a transatlantic thing, but this will be able to transport a person from Rionegro to Medellin in 2 minutes.”
Skyports is basically dedicated to two business lines, a short-term line and a long-term line. The short-term line is dedicated to cargo delivery with low to medium capacity drones, which means that we develop through a customer supply chain structure where we move something from point A to point B, that’s what we do.
On the long-term, and understanding a little bit about the aviation story, the first operators were cargo and later passengers, so [we envision] the same thing happening with the revolution of drones. The midterm bet is to achieve the ability to develop vertiports, which are ports that are the necessary infrastructure to land air taxis, drones that can take passengers between cities, between coasts, so it’s a thing that it’s more dedicated towards aviation.
It’s not a transatlantic thing, but this will be able to transport a person from Rionegro to Medellin in 2 minutes, so let’s say that’s the bet. Currently we have operations in different parts of the world. We have operations in APAC, in Singapore, in Scotland we have a successful case in the health sector. And currently the company selected Latin America for a reason and especially Colombia, and that is because we have identified that there are possibilities, there are opportunities for connecting these people that live in rural areas.
So that’s the mission that we have at this moment, and with this type of technology we want to democratize the access to supplies, logistics, goods and even with a more humanitarian focus, and that’s why we chose Colombia, besides the fact that this country, having its characteristics. It’s a country that provides a certain amount of technology, a dynamic environment, especially Medellin, which works as a hub in this topic. So due to the opportunity and conditions that we found here, with the difficult times that people spend trying to gain access to products, food; the geographical conditions, political conditions, thanks to all of that we see opportunities where we can focus and expand the service throughout Latin America in general.
Finance Colombia: You mentioned several things, one thing is that obviously yes, there are challenges that we have here in Colombia as well as there are many areas where the access is only via ships and boats: speaking of Chocó, speaking of Nariño, there are areas like Norte de Santander and Catatumbo where the security situation is dangerous and there are drone use cases for surveillance of oil pipelines for example, but you also mention other things that are surprising to me, when you speak about drones as a way of transportation for people.
I imagine that is not approved in any country for commercial use, it must be in a test stage, isn’t that very futuristic? Something that can be conceived in a more of a long-term way like something we are not going to see in 2022 or 2023, since it’s still in the experimental stage. The process to test a new airplane which would be like FAA, European Union or Aerocivil, is a process that takes years and years so when you’re talking about going from the Airbus 320 to the Airbus 340, there’s a process of 5 to 10 years, so isn’t the idea of passenger drones more like a dream?
I can understand medicine transportation, for example, I know Skyports has a mail delivery project in England, but is transporting people like a dream or is more like a project where you can say “yes, in three years we’re going to move people” or will it still be just products like medicines and food?
Daniel Salamanca: You just said something very important Loren, it’s a bet towards the future. In this midterm line, which I just mentioned to you, what you’re saying is very clear, we only transport small cargo through smaller drones that can take up to 5, 6, 7 or 8 kilograms.
That’s what’s happening currently. Now, despite that we are aware that in the world there are a few companies, Airbus, even new companies, startups, that are developing the concept of air mobility. Countries like Singapore & Dubai are exploring the opportunity of having vertical ports, which is infrastructure oriented to this type of technology. Also companies in Europe and the United States are making the first tests of this [passenger transporting] equipment.
What we know is that this at some point transition will come, and what we’re doing is to prepare the land, the infrastructure, and the logistics to be able to at some point have the capacity of let’s say, providing the service in this kind of air mobility infrastructure. Obviously we can say it’s a dream but it’s a dream that it’s becoming tangible. Every day there are more players in the field, every day doing tests of these types of drones to transport people, and they are developing the infrastructure, the heliports where the drones will be parked. Yes, the concept definitely sounds very futuristic compared to what we have right now, but there are already many companies in the world and even regulatory bodies and institutions working to create regulations so that these can go from a dream to a reality. So far we’re just focused on what we can do which are deliveries with drones, taking a load from point A to point B.
Finance Colombia: Speaking of the commercial aspect of it, the good thing about a drone is that they are fast, and they don’t have to go through streets and road traffic. Two cities can be relatively close but there’s a mountain separating them, so travel is slow. Before from Santa Fe de Antioquia to Medellin it was like six hours because there was no tunnel, and we had to go up the mountain and then go back down.
The drones have limited capacity, and I imagine that due to the operational cost I can’t say: “I want to supply everything to a town.” So due to the delivery cost, the focus has to be on high value products, right? What is the model so that it can be profitable for the company? Obviously by the capacity of the drones, commercial limits and also the fact that when we’re speaking of drones, we’re not talking about suburban areas like Chia, or Cajicá or Llanogrande, but remote areas that have no resources. Can you provide these services in a way that is not so expensive for the end user? I’d like to understand the model, taking into account all these types of limitations.
Daniel Salamanca: Perfect, I can give you an example of what we’re doing in Scotland currently. We’re delivering vital medical supplies. With the concept of the drone, it has to be something of high value, that needs to be transported in a short amount of time. And when I say value, I don’t mean money, but for the person that is receiving it, it is something very necessary, valuable. So: high value, short time delivery, and something that needs to be transported quickly.
What we’re doing in Scotland, with this partnership with the NHS, which is an equivalent of the Health Ministry in Colombia, we developed a process for vital supplies for populations on islands receiving government assistance, similar to populations here in Colombia. The paying customer would be the medical institutions, government agencies and nonprofits or humanitarian entities.
Now in the case of low-income areas as you mention, a village in La Guajira, or a community in Chocó, it’s hard for them to afford this service. Despite that, the strategy is to be able to develop alliances with the government. In Africa there is a success case where this technology was applied. Humanitarian aid is part of the strategies we are trying to develop.
Finance Colombia: Something I’ve noticed is that you have the support of Irelandia Aviation. As we know, this is a private equity developer of airlines which has been super successful and has also worked in the US. They are from the same brains behind RyanAir in Europe. Here in Colombia, Irelandia is the engine behind Viva and its success. Tell the importance of having that backup regarding capital, knowledge and experience in the aviation sector? What does it mean for Skyports?
Daniel Salamanca: Irelandia understands the importance of investing in the future of mobility, including drones and urban air taxis, which is something that is happening right now. What we did was to create an alliance, a joint venture, to cover this part of the world. Irelandia provides its whole background regarding the aviation sector in the region, in Colombia, as well as it has done it with Mexico and Peru, and having operations throughout the region. It has this commercial background and also in the operational aspect. This alliance is very exciting and important, so that we can land with a partner that has a lot of experience in aviation development. The concept of drones for Irelandia is clear and its strategy is to bet on them for the future.
Finance Colombia: When will you operating? When will you be flying drones in Colombia? And when will you be operating serving commercial clients?
Daniel Salamanca: The pre-operational phase where we have to obtain the permissions and technical things, pilots, putting all of this together will take place through July of 2022 when we expect to begin the first operations. What we’re doing now is finishing deals with our partners or potential customers to develop proof-of-concept tests for the first or second quarter of next year. This will also depend on (Colombia’s civil aviation regulatory authority) Aerocivil, in order to have commercial operating permission for the next year. That’s part of the roll out that we’re doing in Colombia, but we will also integrate countries like Panama or Mexico to start operations under the same plan. First we develop tests, then apply for permission with the regulatory entities, giving proof of safety and reliability, and then we jump to the commercial phase, to start billing clients.
Finance Colombia: Besides the government, with a use case like the health ministry distributing COVID vaccines, what’s the profile of your ideal client?
Daniel Salamanca: Regarding health, there is a long logistics chain: there’s the government, there are the suppliers, transportation, pharmacies, and laboratory entities…so the drone gets to be part of a chain that is already working with all the actors of the health sector, suppliers, pharmacies, health entities, government, clinics, and even foundations that also work in the health sector. Also the Red Cross and humanitarian organizations that are involved in the health process could become that ideal client we’re looking for. So, in the health sector, that’s what we’re emulating, since that’s what we’ve done in Asia Pacific and Europe.
Finance Colombia: We want to let our audience know every step and every achievement you make, so let’s stay in touch with Skyports and its growth.
Daniel Salamanca: Thank you very much. I’m here for any inquiry or comment you might have. And we will keep developing this technology here in Colombia to help the communities and the people.