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Drones carry express packages in warehouses

Can coronavirus kick start a drone home delivery revolution?

The vision of a sky buzzing with drones, soaring over congested streets to speed packages directly to grateful customers’ homes is one that has obvious appeal for both retailers and consumers.

Drones can make deliveries more quickly and cheaply than road vehicles and, in the current Covid-19 crisis, another important advantage has emerged – the potential to minimise human contact that can help spread the virus.

While a number of operators, most famously Amazon with its Prime Air service, have been working for years to develop drone deliveries, the idea is yet to become a large-scale reality, largely because of regulatory barriers.

But, with continuing local lockdowns, a potential second wave and many communities still shielding, the use of drones for vital deliveries and containment has been given a shot in the arm.

Official approval

In China, where the coronavirus outbreak first took hold, drones are being widely used for medical deliveries, spraying disinfectant over large areas, taking peoples’ temperatures using thermal cameras and issuing warnings to citizens to wear masks.

In Spain, police forces are deploying drones to remotely monitor streets and parks, using onboard speakers to issue social distancing advice.

And in the US, drones are already being used in Virginia to deliver small items like food and medical supplies, with a number of operators said to be close to receiving official approval to roll out commercial delivery services.

So, could the crisis accelerate the roll out of drones in the retail sector?

Just the beginning

Professor Kevin Curran is a senior member of The Institute of Electrical and Electronics Engineers and professor of cybersecurity at Ulster University.

He said: “Amazon of course are the most high-profile company seeking to usher in guidelines for autonomous drone deliveries, but grocery delivery is just the beginning.

“The price of fuel is not going to come down in the future, along with the other large costs associated with maintaining delivery fleets, therefore the economics of the situation will push a lot more of this business to the skies.

“One of the more likely retailers to use them will be local pharmacies, so people can place their repeat prescriptions online with local health clinics, have the prescription automatically forwarded to their pharmacy, which will then use drones to deliver medicine to local homes.”

But what are the biggest barriers to drone deliveries to people’s homes?

Taking safety seriously

Clearly, drone deliveries are necessarily a highly-regulated area, given the potential public safety issues.

Dr Nigel Whittle is Head of Medical and Healthcare at engineering and design consultancy Plextek, which designs new products, systems, and services for clients in industries including defence & security, medical & healthcare and wireless communications.

He said: “The consequences of unregulated flying of drones can be deadly serious.

“Drones can and do fall out of the sky, GPS systems aren’t as robust as we’d like to believe and no-one wants one to crash in a densely populated environment.

“But the main limiting factor is not drone technology, it’s the regulation which necessarily surrounds their use.

Overcoming issues

“Drones currently have to be piloted, or at least have human pilot back-up, and be flown within the line of sight of that pilot.

“Regulation also limits the use of drones in built-up and uncontrolled areas and prevents operation where visibility is degraded, for example in adverse weather conditions.”

To overcome these issues, drones will need to be equipped with technology so they can operate autonomously and reduce the risk of accidents to an acceptably low rate.

To solve the critical problem of collisions and accidents in built-up environments, Dr Whittle and his team are working on a system to enable drones to accurately detect and avoid obstacles like telephone masts, streetlights, trees – and other drones.

He says existing systems have limitations, with optical cameras of limited use at night or in low visibility.

While infrared systems can overcome these issues, they can struggle to spot find obstacles like powerlines or wire fences.

A catalyst for innovation

In response, Plextek is developing a radar-based system which Dr Whittle says is small, lightweight, can work in all weathers and is capable of detecting very small targets from many tens of metres away.

The system is currently being trialled by a number of drone operators.

Dr Whittle says: “This enables operators to manoeuvre drones very close to dangerous and expensive infrastructure to perform a number of roles, including delivery of goods, even in poor visibility which otherwise would be almost impossible.

“And in the current circumstances, these developments can’t be realised soon enough.”

While there are more obstacles to overcome – including the threat from anti-drone technologies being used to intercept deliveries - there is no doubt that times of crisis can act as a catalyst for innovation, and Professor Curran believes that more widespread drone use may be one unforeseen outcome of the outbreak.

He said: “Drones have rapidly developed in a short space of time and we can expect to see dramatic change in modern society as a result.

“It will not be unusual in five years to see drones commonly delivering packages.”

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Alternatively, find out how coronavirus was the catalyst for a tech revolution in GP surgeries.

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