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Are drones a solution during COVID-19?

01/04/2020

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United Kingdom

There's been talk about drone deliveries for a number of years now.  So why aren't we seeing drones delivering medical supplies, packages or groceries during these difficult times?

With special thanks to trainee, Sebastian Georgescu, for writing this article with input from John Brunning.

Taking off

The past month has turned the words self-isolation and social distancing into key soundbites, with the Government imposing stricter measures to ensure everyone stays inside.
 
The saying that adversity breeds creativity will surely be tested, not only in the medical world but also in tech. Many tech companies are already setting themselves the challenge of coming up with solutions for tackling the day-to-day issues caused by COVID-19. From Elon Musk using Tesla factories to produce ventilators to apps allowing users to rekindle the lost camaraderie through group video conferencing and even companies like Fender offering extended free trials to learn to play guitar online, there is no shortage of action being taken to alleviate the effects of isolation.
 
In these times of social distancing, one area of tech you might think would see a significant rise (no pun intended) would be drones and more specifically, drones making deliveries. It is easy to see how having a drone deliver items can be of vital importance during these times. From a daily groceries perspective, having drone delivery can ease the backlog for online stores like Amazon and Ocado  and also limit human interaction, reducing the exponential transmission of the virus. From a medical supplies perspective, despite the roads being clearer nowadays, a drone delivery could still make the type of time difference that may save lives.
 
There's been talk about drone deliveries for a number of years now.  So why aren't we seeing drones delivering medical supplies, packages or groceries during these difficult times? Apart from the net that covers my balcony, the reason why drones aren't the new norm can be boiled down to 1) the state of technology and 2) regulation.
 
Turbulence
 
State of technology
 
Drones are already a hot topic in the tech world with companies like Amazon presenting the future service of drone delivery by way of Amazon Prime Air. Uber have unveiled their Eats delivery drone in late 2019 (click here for the image). However, all these companies have to deal with what may be the biggest hurdle from a tech perspective, landing.
 
Landing the drone safely is essential for package delivery. Unfortunately, to land a drone safely, the drone must be able to pinpoint the exact location for delivery, make sure there are no obstacles in its way and deal with natural obstacles such as wind. To address some of these issues, a company called Zipline offers a parachuting solution, where the package is parachuted and, by factoring the wind, lands safely at its intended destination. However, this solution might not be practical in a congested urban environment. 
 
Generally speaking, drone GPS technology, although highly sophisticated, is not good at finding your specific address based on information such as postcode, especially in a congested urban setting.  To get around this,  Matternet uses landing stations (with a design like something out of Mass Effect) to ensure precise and safe landing of time-sensitive deliveries to hospitals. TechCrunch reported that Matternet performed test flights in Switzerland and North Carolina, with new tests planned for San Diego with a view to enabling medical facilities to send medications and (hopefully) vaccines without worrying about traffic. Whilst this solution avoids the hurdles of having to pinpoint a person's address, it takes away from the convenience of having the delivery at your doorstep. Maybe the future norm will be a drone landing pad next to the mailbox.
 
Noise is also an issue, with locals having expressed concerns on the effect of 'whizzing noises' in relation to Amazon's CAA approved drone delivery trial, despite it being in a countryside location. This problem would be even more relevant in a heavily congested area. However, new drone designs could potentially get over this obstacle. For example, UPS in partnership with Wingcopter have developed a drone, which looks more like a model airplane, that can carry small packages between various office locations and deliver critical medical supplies and life-saving equipment.
 
All in all, there is a clear overall sentiment of 'rising to the challenge' when it comes to making drones technology feasible for larger scale deliveries. However, there is another (and perhaps more challenging) hurdle at play - regulation.
 
Regulation
 
There are multiple laws which may affect the use of drones in the UK. In addition to general restrictions and registration requirements laid out in the Air Navigation Order (2016) (ANO), there may be privacy issues (if for example the drone contains surveillance equipment, or deliveries are made to an individual's house)  and property law concerns relating to drones flying over people's houses.
 
For drones attempting to make commercial deliveries, there are a number of potential hurdles imposed by these regulations. One of these is the height at which drones are permitted to fly. Drones are not allowed to fly at a height of  over 400ft above the surface without permission from the CAA, who enforces ANO. Furthermore, special permission is required from the CAA for drones to be piloted in congested areas, as the default position is that a drone carrying surveillance equipment is not allowed to be within 50 metres of people in flight and 30 metres when landing or taking off.  There is also a specific registration requirement applicable to 'commercial operations'.
 
Perhaps the most challenging obstacle is the requirement that the person piloting the drone must keep it in line of sight. For automatically flying drones, the pilot is the person who monitors the drone and can affect its flight. This requirement can prove quite difficult for companies seeking to use drones for long distance deliveries. Amazon has had some success obtaining exemption from this requirement from the CAA but it meant that Amazon had to go to some lengths to prove the safety and viability of their trials, which were done in Cambridge, mainly in the countryside. It is likely that even more stringent hurdles would be imposed for deliveries in built up areas such as cities.
 
Finally, ANO also imposes obligations on drone users to not cause or permit an aircraft to endanger a person or property. Again, the risk of falling short of this would rise in congested areas.
 
Whilst there is a definite push from tech companies for delivery drones to become commonplace, there is still some way to go in terms of regulation.
 
Looking to the future
 
Generally speaking, EU and UK regulators are aware that the legislative environment could be improved in order to facilitate widespread, commercial delivery type drone usage.
 
At a EU level,  Commission Delegated Regulation (EU) 2019/945 & Commission Implementing Regulation (EU) 2019/947 (the Regulations) have been published to ensure safe and secure drone operations across Europe. The Regulations impose safety rules affecting both commercial and private use of drones and aim to ensure the free circulation of drones and a level playing field in Europe. The Regulations will come in force as of the 1st of July 2020 but there will be a transitional period for certain requirements. One aspect of the Regulations that may positively affect commercial deliveries via drones is that, once drone operators have received an authorisation in the state of registration, they are allowed to freely circulate in the European Union. This may provide for a more seamless coordination of drones for a pan-European delivery business. Drones flying beyond the line of sight are permitted but will need to be authorised, likely in the "Specific Category" which requires operators to either a) perform a risk assessment using a standardised method (the 'SORA') or b) verify that they comply with a specific scenario defined by the European Union Aviation Safety Agency or the national aviation authority.
 
In the UK, the Government published a consultation paper on steps to be taken by authorities to better address the challenges and opportunities of increased drone usage. The consultation can be accessed here. The consultation focused on enforcement and, specifically, police officers being able to enforce some of the restrictions in ANO. The result is that at the moment, the Air Traffic Management and Unmanned Aircraft Bill is currently going through Parliamentary approval. However, the focus of this legislation is providing appropriate police powers as opposed to facilitating commercial drone deliveries. The progress of the bill can be tracked here.
 
More relevant guidance on the topic comes from the CAA in their helpful 'Beyond Visual Line of Sight in Non-Segregated Airspace' which can be accessed here. The CAA recognise that the  permissions currently required to fly a drone beyond the line of sight are not a viable solution for drone delivery. The CAA proposes a roadmap for the future at page 10 of their guidance with the end goal being to reach a place where there are clear regulatory guidelines for routine approvals of drones flying beyond the line of sight. The steps to get there involve developing a "Detect and Avoid Solutions Framework" and doing a tiered integration of beyond line of sight type flights in "non-segregated airspaces". In effect, the paper provides suggestions on what needs to be done for drones to be able to safely fly beyond the line of sight by a) combining various technologies (such as "On-Board Detect and Avoid Equipment" and "Electronic Identification and Conspicuity") and b) having viable use cases to safely trial and error these types of activities.
 
Landing
 
As is often the case, the law lags behind the speed of technological advancement.  Clearly the laws around drones in the UK and EU are focused on the safety of individuals, but as we see a rise in this evolving technology and the benefits become clearer, regulators are surely going to need to reconsider the case for being more permissive of drone deliveries.  We might not see drones bringing our food during these trying times but we can look forward to the future, where this may very well become commonplace. In the meantime, when purchasing a new house, make sure it has room for a drone landing station, just to be on the safe side…

 

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