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Higher, faster, and more of them: the future of drones is flying ahead

  1. Commercial market for drone technology is worth more than $127bn
  2. Rwanda will be first country to have performance-monitoring of drones
  3. In Britain, study showed 77 percent feared drones being used by terrorists

A medical worker in Rwanda looks at his mobile phone, and runs outside. There he picks up a parcel of essential medicines, just dropped from the heavens – literally – by a drone. On the other side of the world, a building foreman in New York squints up at a drone hovering over the latest stage of construction; he’s not worried because the drone is carrying out a routine inspection.

These uses and many others are part of the patchwork, ever richer and more complicated, of drone applications, now a global boom industry. In 2018, government regulators and businesses are collaborating to enact laws which will bring drones to more and more sectors.

Business consultancy PwC found after a recent study that the commercial market for drone technology, including business services, is valued at over $127 billion (£91bn). Infrastructure is the business sector expected to benefit most from drone applications ($45.2bn), the study says, with agriculture and transport also featuring highly.

In the UK, the Department for Transport’s forthcoming Drone Bill will propose new safety features granting police the right to order operators to ground drones on safety grounds. The bill will also make it mandatory for owners to register drones weighing over 250 grams, and use apps to ensure flights are both safe and legal. The bill could also ban all drones from flying above 400 feet, and near airports.

Drones are increasingly being used for business purposes
Drones are increasingly being used for business purposes

“I think 2018 might be the year when companies and governments realize you can use drones to take goods and services everywhere,” said Gideon Gerber, a partner at Air Borne Drones, based in South Africa. One of Gerber’s examples is a restaurant in Italy which uses drones to deliver food to customers on yachts in a nearby bay. Air Borne Drones provides two models, the Falcon and the Vanguard, custom-equipped for uses such as wildlife and game monitoring, surveying, mapping, farming, and agriculture.

‘We are all working together in the push to be faster’

“Any use of drones has to be programmed into your business process, from the building of little landing spots for drones, to how they interact with your environment,” continued Gerber. “When you start moving beyond visual line of sight, you are dealing with issues of public air space. Most countries have started publishing regulations which are lagging behind drones. The areas of development this year will be infrastructure and the ability to detect and avoid other drones. Some of this is very rudimentary at the moment, but we will see drone platforms interacting with their environments. Suppliers are focusing on building a network that goes around it. We are a build-to-order company and often have to customize or fashion our solutions to specific needs.”

The UK’s forthcoming bill follows newly-proposed rules from the European Aviation Safety Agency. These seek to create a regulatory framework to foster the development of all civil unmanned aircraft systems. The objective of the EASA’s Opinion is to create a new framework that would ensure consistent safety standards for drones, as well as addressing concerns over security, privacy, data protection and environmental protection.

Public and private partnerships across the world are pushing innovation in uses of drones. In 2016, the Rwandan government partnered with a Silicon Valley company called Zipline, which delivers essential medical supplies by drone. The unmanned vehicles average speeds of 62 miles per hour and can carry up to three pounds of cargo. Deliveries are dropped outside of health centers using parachutes, and medical workers are notified of drops by text messages.

Around 3,000 deliveries, including blood, platelets, and plasma, have been made to date; Zipline has since widened its services to Tanzania. Earlier this year, the World Economic Forum announced that Rwanda will become the first country to adopt performance-based regulations for drones – which would allow for rules for safety standards as well as an increase in the number of drone operators focusing on issues like health, development, and humanitarian responses.

Other parts of East Africa have also become an important testing ground for more commercial drone use. In Uganda, the Technical Centre for Agricultural and Rural Cooperation (CTA), a coalition of the African, Caribbean and Pacific (ACP) Group of States and the European Union (EU), has partnered with the National Union of Coffee Agribusinesses and Farm Enterprises (NUCAFE) and IGARA Tea to use drones to map coffee and tea growing districts for agricultural pests. NUCAFE is an umbrella organization for 198 coffee associations; Igara Tea has around 7,000 farmer members.

Delivery times shrink from days to hours

Delivery of goods and services in urban centers is also set for a drone-led transformation. Rapid urbanization and a shift towards online shopping – both causes of pollution and congested roads – could cause delivery companies to direct supply chains towards drone deliveries. For instance, goods from long-haul vehicles could be separated in warehouses outside of cities; their contents could be collected from conveyor belts by drones and flown to their drop-off points using GPS. Such services would reduce delivery times from days to hours. The drones would return to the warehouse to recharge.

A 2016 Deutsche Bank study elaborated on delivery cost efficiencies gained by using drones. According to the study, a premium ground service costs between $6-$6.50 (£4.30) to deliver a parcel the size of a typical shoebox. A mid-tier service, which can take up to several days, can cost between $4 and $5. In both cases, the last mile of delivery costs around $2. But drones can deliver in around 30 minutes for less than $0.05 per mile.

A German company is testing unmanned air taxis in Dubai
A German company is testing unmanned air taxis in Dubai

The past 12 months have seen memorable consumer applications tested. These included a branch of Costa on the coastal Jumeirah Beach Road in Dubai testing a “Drone Drop” of iced coffees to customers at the beach. Also in Dubai, Volocopter, based in Bruchsal, near Stuttgart, Germany, successfully tested the first unmanned air taxi. The drones, capable of carrying two passengers, are powered by electricity and have a maximum flight time of 30 minutes. Volocopter is currently engaged in further tests in conjunction with Dubai’s Roads and Transport Authority.

“I think we will see a number of major companies announcing they are entering this space,” said Alexander Zosel, co-founder and chief innovation officer at Volocopter. “The more serious players, the better it is. To some degree, we are all working together in the push to be faster. To get a serious increase in the use of drones technology, we need help with digital infrastructure. We need pathways from drone digital infrastructure to hardware to autonomous solutions. We also need to see a collaborative approach to regulations with authorities.”

Zosel added that while Dubai has taken an adoptive view of drones, the harsh climate of the Gulf emirate – where temperatures can reach up to 104°F throughout June, July, and August – would pose additional hurdles. “The climate is much harder in Dubai, where you have to contend with a lot of heat” he said. “The heat is not a friend of batteries or propulsion.”

Fear of drones a challenge in UK

In the UK, the innovation foundation Nesta, which runs programs to find cheap and alternative ways to supply public services, has launched the Flying High Challenge. In this, five cities and districts – London, Bradford, Preston, Southampton, and the West Midlands – will explore both the use of drones in increasing public services as well as commercial opportunities. One in three UK cities originally applied to take part. Flying High, a collaboration with Innovate UK, will also examine public attitudes to drones, environment impact, and safety in high-density environments.

The initiative is also meant to counter the British public’s negative perceptions of drones. According to a survey conducted by OnePoll, two in five respondents (40 percent) said drones offer more risks than benefits to local economies. People also cited the possible use of drones for terrorism (77 percent), spying (73 percent), and drug delivery (71 percent) as top on the list of concerns. Those surveyed also expressed concerns about drones falling from skies or crashing (69 percent), being hacked (67 percent) or replacing jobs (55 percent). Only 32 percent of those surveyed said drones could have a positive impact on their local economy.

“The trend that seems to be emerging for 2018 is around collaboration,” said Nishita Dewan, project manager of the Flying High Challenge. “As well as working with technology companies, we also have a local strategy with cities to understand where the problems are that can be addressed by drone technology. For instance, where are the funds that can be unlocked to catalyze these changes?”

Some of the challenges the cities seek to address include the transportation of medical supplies to and from hospital, to the inspection of critical infrastructure, including street work, accident and emergency monitoring in cities as well as looking to understand how drones could facilitate harmonization across emergency services.

“One way of looking at what happens with drones in 2018 is to look at how regular air safety has been improved. It is all about proving the safety case, which is being proactively addressed. So with some drone applications, there are some similarities with air travel,” Dewan said. “The three categories we have to think about are injuries to third parties on the ground, damage to infrastructure, and injuries to passengers. I think once people start thinking along those lines, the practical uses begin to open up and offer amazing opportunities.”

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