An assessment of autonomous drones’ potential during the COVID-19 pandemic
The drone industry has the potential to make a substantial contribution in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Developments in the industry have been nascent so far, but there is the potential for exponential growth in this industry. Based on the research report of Business Insider Intelligence on Drones for the Enterprise, the drone services market size is expected to grow from USD$4.4 billion in 2018 to USD$63.6 billion by 2025. The report also predicts consumer drone shipments to hit 29 million by 2021.
Drone technology has efficiently been used in multiple industries such as agriculture, package delivery, critical infrastructure mapping, inspection, first aid response, mining, energy, and construction. In 2017, the US startup Zipline teamed up with the Rwandan government to deliver blood supplies by drones. As Time correspondent Aryn Baker reports on Zipline, the company has dispatched more than 4000 units of blood products to 12 hospitals that would have otherwise needed to travel by a treacherously tangled road network, losing precious hours in the race to save lives. Drone technology has been applied to subtler search and rescue missions among the scarred remains of the bush in Victoria to support emergency efforts in Australia.
In Oklahoma, Choctaw Nation and Oklahoma State University demonstrated the use of a drone to rebait feral hog traps in remote locations in an effort to find ways to minimise crop damage and provide a safer working environment for agriculture workers. In Kansas, the State Department of Transportation demonstrated the use of drones for power line inspections, and in North Carolina, a drone was used to demonstrate medical package delivery operations over people at a large medical facility.
Regulation and challenges
The US Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is currently focusing on enabling an ever-expanding universe of drone operations and capabilities in the United States. The FAA has moved forward with a number of regulatory initiatives in order to allow for such operations to be conducted safely and securely. In the hearing of the United States Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation on ‘New Entrants in the National Airspace: Policy, Technology, and Security Issues for Congress’ in 2019, the importance of commercial drones was highlighted through these operations in the United States.
Despite the broad range of drone applications, there are still various hurdles along the way. One of the biggest hurdles to the broad range of drone applications is the regulations that restrict what drone manufacturers and technology suppliers can do. Although they are striving to be able to turn drones into a full-fledged industry, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has various regulations that have hindered the development of the drone industry in the United States. The most prevalent of these restrictions is the one known as the ‘line of sight rule’ and it mandates that drone operators keep the unmanned aircraft within eyeshot at all times.
Responding to COVID-19
Despite the regulatory challenges along the way, the COVID-19 pandemic will make autonomous drones an indispensable technology. As many workforces are locked down, Alphabet’s drone delivery company Wing has made over 1000 deliveries in recent weeks. As people adhere to social distancing rules during the COVID-19 pandemic, Wing has expanded its delivery options and it also offers items like pasta and baby food to meet the demands of people in lockdown.
Additionally, the French Riviera police are now using drones to inform people about the dangers of the Coronavirus and to order them to keep a safe distance. More importantly, the US drone company Draganfly is now working with the Australian Department of Defense and the University of South Australia to deploy special pandemic drones that can detect coughing, sneezing, respiratory rate and even fever from a distance. It is even possible for insurance companies to use drone technology for contract-free inspection purposes. The US start-up Zipline also wants to operate in the US and bring medical drone delivery to fight COVID-19.
Looking at these examples, autonomous drones have clearly proven to be extremely useful in fighting the COVID-19 challenge. In this regard, regulators should work harder for better agency policies and legislations for unlocking the potential of autonomous drones in this pandemic. If this is not the perfect time for deploying the services of autonomous drones, when would it be?
The author would like to thank Dr Merih Angin and Patrick Perry for their valuable contributions.
Sebnem Tugce Pala is currently working for the Policy Initiatives team at Spin Electric Scooters Sharing (Ford Mobility) in San Francisco. She is working as a researcher for Transportation Sustainability Research Center (TSRC) at UC Berkeley. She can be reached at https://www.linkedin.com/in/sebnemtugcepala/