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Maersk hopes drones can deliver sweet savings

Shipping giant Maersk Group made headlines earlier this year when it used a drone to deliver a bucket of cookies to a tanker at sea. That was just the beginning of an effort the company thinks could dramatically change its business.

The company is evaluating ways to expand its use of drones and plans a bigger test later this year, said Markus Kuhn, a supply chain manager at Maersk, at the Drones Data X conference in San Francisco.

In January, the company made a drone fly 250 meters from one of its barges to a tanker and drop off a batch of cookies. It's now looking for a drone-making partner for a test flight that would haul a 10-kilogram package for 10 kilometers.

That test would illustrate a key use case for Maersk, that of resupplying its fleet of tankers, oil platforms, container ships and other craft. The roughly 22-pound cargo in the next test would serve as a key proof of concept for getting more important gear to remote ships. That weight would cover a lot of the important equipment deliveries it makes to ships.

Looking further out, Maersk could use drones to cut the cost of operating its wide swath of businesses, which include a massive shipping line, a port logistics company and a oil platform operations company. Its interest in the burgeoning uncrewed vehicle market, including both drones and underwater craft, is also a vote of confidence for a nascent industry that will need support from consumers and businesses alike. 

By using drones for resupply, Maersk might be able to avoid sending an entire ship on an equipment delivery to a tanker, something it sometimes has to do in order to comply with regulations about protecting explosive cargo. 

But that's not the only thing Maersk might use drones for. Kuhn said the company sees a lot of opportunities to use drones for inspecting equipment, including using them to reach places that are hard for humans to reach. 

However, Kuhn isn't interested in technology for its own sake. Each use of a drone has to be cheaper than whatever method Maersk is using now, he said.

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