The common expression throughout the pandemic, “we’re all in this together,” now includes drones.
Because when it comes to social distancing, delivery drones are by definition, perfect. They certainly have the distancing portion down pact and they’re not particularly social.
Drones have become an important tool in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic by helping them create more resilient supply chains and serving as the perfect device to deliver items from the oft-mentioned six feet away. The pandemic has proven to be a driving force for drone innovation as communities and businesses have started to recognize that the utility and positive impacts of drones outweigh the potential risks.
Once regarded as a nuisance buzzing around our heads and cities, drones are now arguably a life-saving tool as the battle against COVID-19 rages on.
- More from ResearchFDI:
According to a report from UNICEF, eighteen countries have developed drone delivery and transportation purposes during the pandemic, of which Canada and the US are included. Three countries in sub-Saharan
Africa, specifically Rwanda, Ghana, and Malawi, reported the use of drones to deliver regular medical commodities, COVID-19 supplies, and medical samples since the pandemic began last March.
UNICEF says the benefits that drones can offer are “exceptional,” citing the speed of delivery, limited physical contact, the reduced risk of transmission during delivery, and an extended (and almost endless) transportation network as the new tech’s most important assets.
Several reports have also highlighted drones’ use of aerial spraying of disinfectants in public outdoor spaces which have also allegedly helped to contain the spread of the virus. UNICEF says some companies claim they managed to cover 3-square-kilometres of an area with a single elongated spray.
Not unlike how the First World War drove the innovation for the first commercial airplanes, COVID-19 has accelerated the use of drones for the delivery of goods as people began to rely on the machines for help.
What are drones?
A delivery drone, typically autonomous, is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) that is used to transport packages, medical supplies, food, or other goods. Delivery drones function independently or remotely with controllers who tend to monitor several drones at the same time. The main types of delivery drones are fixed-winged drones, rotor drones, and hybrids. According to a March 2021 press release from ReportLinker, a fixed-wing drone is a “rigid structure” that has a fixed position rather than moving up and down. Rotor drones are arranged with a tail rotor to control their heading, and hybrid drones are a mix of both.
Before the pandemic, drones were used primarily in e-commerce, quick-serve restaurants, and certain healthcare sectors.
Major commercial deliver drone systems
Amazon has been runnings its “Prime Air” division since 2016 and the company says it has goals of using flying drones to deliver orders in under half an hour. Currently, Amazon’s drones can transport 4.8 pound packages over a distance of 24 km on a single charge.
Amazon has drone delivery centres set up in the US, UK, Austria, Israel, and France, and says it tests drone deliveries in “many locations around the world.” Currently, its six-wheeled delivery drone known as “Scout” is in its beta version in the US.
In 2016, Zipline, a product delivery company based out of San Francisco, began a partnership with the government of Rwanda. Rwanda has mountainous geography, poor road conditions, and a tough rainy season, making aerial delivery a more cost-efficient and timely option instead of the traditional road-based deliveries. By October 2020, Zipline had made over 70,000 medical deliveries by drone and has since expanded its territory coverage into Ghana.
During a delivery, Zipline drones — which can travel up to 180 km round-trip per charge — do not land but descend to al ow height and slowly drop packages to the ground, slowed by a parachute-like air brake.
Wing is owned by Google’s Alphabet Inc. and specializes in deliveries while being able to carry parcels up to three pounds. In April 2019, Wing became the first drone delivery company to receive an Air operator’s certificate from the Federal Aviation Administration, allowing it to operate as an airline in the USA.
UPS Flight Forward Inc.
UPS Flight Forward Inc. is a wholly-owned subsidiary of the United Parcel Service which focuses on, you guessed it, drone delivery. The company launched in July 2019 and became the first company to receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s full Part 135 Standard certification which allows the company to operate an “unlimited remote-controlled drone delivery network in the United States,” including long-distance and nighttime flights.
Swoop Aero’s network provides improved access to essential health supplies to over 650,000 people in the Nsanje and Chikwawa districts in Southern Malawi. Swoop’s drones can complete round trips of around 260 km and can carry a maximum weight of 18 kg (just under 40 lbs) which equals about 50 vials of blood. The drones have a wingspan of 2.4m (nearly 8 feet) and are required to fly below 122m (about 400 feet) to ensure they don’t collide with manned aircrafts.
The future of delivery drones, post-COVID
According to a Research and Markets report from February, drones could account for one-third of same-day deliveries by 2030. The estimates have started to become clearer as the pandemic has enabled faster and more expansive testing of drone delivery systems. With the quieter skies because of the lockdowns, drones have found space to accelerate their growth and development since the pandemic began.
“The drone delivery service market analysis projects that the market is expected to grow at a significant CAGR of 14.5% on the basis of value during the forecast period from 2023 to 2030,” says the press release. “Asia-Pacific is expected to dominate the global drone delivery service market with a share of 39% by value in 2023. Asia-Pacific, including the major countries, such as China, Japan, Singapore, and Korea are the most prominent regions for the drone delivery service market. In North America, the U.S. is expected to acquire a major market share in 2023 due to the increasing demand for fast last-mile deliveries.”
PricewaterhouseCoopers (PwC), the multinational professional services network of firms, says that by 2030, the skies of above Britain will be “a very different place.” PwC says that instead of a chaotic swarm of private drones, the skies will be “highly coordinated” of more than 76,000 drones that can perform all manners of tasks. PwC estimates the sky-high industry can be worth £21 billion to UK GDP.
Experts say that drones are unlikely to replace traditional trucking in the near future but as supply chains look to transform their operations following the pandemic, drones will add to existing logistic systems to avoid congestion. Big companies are already involved (the aforementioned Wing), with Amazon and Chinese e-commerce giant JD.com, both considering the prospects of deploying drones for deliveries on a larger scale. Google, for example, has already tested using its drones to research and assist in firefighting.
One of the drone market’s biggest obvious advantages is the ability to take off and land vertically in small areas. While they require less space than helicopters or planes, the industry’s biggest concerns include building sufficient scaling that proves it can become cost-effective and lingering privacy concerns regarding the aircraft hovering above cities and homes will need to be addressed.
“The global drone delivery service market is expected to witness a high growth rate during the forecast period 2023-2030, owing to the growing usage of delivery drones in emerging countries for fast, reliable, and low-cost last-mile delivery services,” says Deepshika Shukla, Research Associate with Research and Markets. “However, the lack of customer’s acceptance toward autonomous technologies acts as a major challenge for the market. The rising demand for instant deliveries is expected to create viable opportunities for the drone delivery service market.”
Despite questions surrounding drone safety, privacy, and liability, the market needs to decide whether we are ready to accept fully-automated machines to populate our skies, sidewalks, and neighbourhoods. If we thought the world has changed a lot in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic — we may have another thing coming in the next few years, like something right out of a sci-fi movie.