Drones have until now been primarily used for military purposes and while they are extraordinarily accurate on one level, all too often there are innocent deaths. Drones are however moving into other sectors – rescue and delivery so far. Where next?
Drone delivery could revolutionise the cost base of delivery services for e-commerce and to remote areas – although at present the range and the carrying capacity of the machines is small – particularly in less developed countries, where roads or existing delivery services are poor. In terms of search and rescue, again they could radically alter the speed of response, the cost base how rescue and emergency responses after disasters are organised.
The growth of e-commerce requires also good, reliable, rapid and timely – i.e. a time of the consumers choice- delivery. Drones may provide some, although probably not all of the answers.
While huge fleets of drones are unlikely to be flying around cities any time soon, delivery services in remoter areas, isolated islands and villages, or even small boats at sea, could make bringing otherwise very costly services to remote areas more economically viable. In the west, where transport networks are already well established, drone delivery may not be so necessary, but in less developed countries where there are few existing delivery service options, this technology may provide a radical increase in accessibility – for retail, health care, rescue.
We mentioned the potential of drones as first responders in major disasters in a recent alert about disaster response, and these practical applications indicate that developments are becoming not only technically viable, but economically so too.
There are concerns: privacy and safety being the main ones. The potential to use drones for spying or just being downright nosy is not insignificant. Also, managing the airspace to avoid mid-air collisions, damaging building or other structures or hurting people if the drones fly too low are problems that need addressing for widespread use. In the case of search and rescue they are controlled from the centre, but an App enabled emergency drone could be vulnerable to false or inappropriate calls.
Balancing the risks and the benefits will as ever be important; but there is no doubt they provide potentially significant benefits.
What is changing?
A company in Australia has started what is said to be the first ever commercial UAV ( Unmanned Aerial Vehicle)/drone based delivery service. It is starting by delivering textbooks, then once proof of concept and practicalities are established and any problems ironed out, they aim to include emergency supplies – food or medical to remote areas. Australian regulations are apparently well set up to encourage the use of drone technology. A US company is also pursuing drones for delivery, and has already raised considerable funding.
One off delivery events which were as much as promotions as actual service have already been used at festivals to deliver beer and elsewhere to deliver burritos. Another one dropped pizzas.
In Germany and the UK two different projects are exploring the use of drones for emergencies in remote areas or when other forms of transport are not viable. With Deftikopter, the aim is to extend emergency services for example by dropping equipment such as defibrillators to keep patients alive while other support can arrive. It works by mobile phone App, and once people have downloaded the App they can request the drone, which is then launched automatically. Aerosee aims to extend and enhance mountain rescue by combining the use of a drone loaded with a camera and volunteers who monitor what it is being transmitted via their PCs/ Laptops/ tablets, and if they see ‘a body’ send the details back to base. The staff then review the crowdsourced intelligence further and using the GPS and the photo can then see where to search / send the rescue party.