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Sebastian Shehadi

Political Editor, Investment Monitor

Drone delivery: accelerated by Covid-19 but not yet taking off

The pandemic has unleashed a swarm of new technologies, especially within the logistics industry. While drones have benefited in particular, the fleet of flying takeaways face numerous headwinds, as Sebastian Shehadi reports.

The restaurant and food service industry has been devastated by Covid-19, but a silver lining has emerged. 

“This year has seen a kind of renaissance for tech, driving investment and adoption years ahead of where we imagined it would be,” says Brody Sweeney, founder of UK and Ireland-based Camile Thai Kitchen, a healthy fast food chain.  

Early in 2020, Camile became the first in Europe to successfully complete aviation-grade drone trials, in partnership with Just Eat and drone delivery startup, Manna, who are also undertaking trials with Tesco this month. 

The pandemic has boosted interest in many types of emerging tech, especially drones. Indeed, in a Covid-19 world where human contact is suspect and e-commerce is king, drone technology is an obvious winner.

Drones have proved themselves to be valuable middlemen for delicate deliveries that require careful handling and minimal intermediate interactions: hence the UK government approving their use for medical deliveries during the pandemic.

Meanwhile, over the last 10 months the US has seen Amazon, UPS and Wing receive Federal Aviation Administration approval, allowing them to expand their drone testing programs.  

Camile’s plans for widespread delivery await certification from the Irish Aviation Authority for Manna’s drone technology. Although the process has been delayed by Covid-19, Sweeney expects the certificate to come through later this year, at which point the company will be cleared for take-off in both Ireland and the UK.  

Are drones worth it?

Some of the world’s largest logistics companies contend that widespread drone deployment will provide huge savings. Amazon Prime Air is striving for 30-minute deliveries, which they say will increase sales.  

“[However], while the price of the technology is justified by the value of the service provided – with 80 per cent reduced cost claimed by DHL in China – scaling and generalising these systems can be tricky,” contends Mohammed Shaqura, from the Real Robotics Lab based at the University of Leeds.  

Larger scale aerial deliveries will kick off in less crowded cities, towns and uncluttered neighbourhoods, he adds. This pilot testing can then be used to scale up the model to more challenging cities.  

In terms of mechanics, drones have come a long way. The tech barriers for operator-controlled drones are becoming fewer, with latency and communication failover being of primary importance, says Richard Yonck, founder of Intelligent Future Consulting, who adds that drone systems will not be fully autonomous for at least another decade or two.  

Drone development has by no means been perfected. Compact multirotor drones suitable for precision delivery are power-hungry, and have limited payload capacity that directly affects the flight time per charge, says Dr Shaqura. 

“Flying conditions like wind and rain can affect the stability of the flying robot and pose risks of degraded or potential hazards. Innovation is also needed for autonomous accessible charging systems. Wireless charging pads or hot-swappable batteries [might be the answer],” he adds.  

The larger challenge, however, is that the legal landscape lags far behind drone technology. The key regulatory considerations surround public safety, both for people on the ground and for other equipment in flight.  

Meanwhile, rules of play have yet to be formalised. For example, UK law currently prevents flying in public areas (which is most spaces), while drones swooping over private areas would be challenged in the courts very quickly, says Mischa Dohler, professor in wireless communications at King’s College London. 

Regulation is needed with regards to flying height and official certification bodies must be established, he adds. “I can imagine that larger drones that fly higher and longer could be certified; they would then fly above the typically regulated drone flying zones and only descend vertically when delivering onto private property where the order originated.” 

With this in mind, some invasion of privacy is inevitable. For one, drones are equipped with high resolution cameras in order to navigate.  

“They will collect a lot of information as they fly over our homes and backyards. Our laws protect customers, so opt-out will be the default. That is, drones can’t store any information unless we explicitly permit them to do so. Retailers will need to tread this path carefully,” says says Milind Dawande, the Mike Redeker Distinguished Professor of Management at The University of Texas at Dallas. 

Drones could offer some benefit to the community in return for some loss of privacy, he adds. For example, they could offer to transport life-savings medicines for free or cheaply, or to alert the police if they spot anything suspicious. 

Friend or foe?

A battle for hearts and minds seems likely to unfold.  

Richard Yonck is sanguine, contending that social barriers will be limited until a significant accident occurs. Then there will be a period of backlash, before new safeguards are implemented.

Indeed, the flying robots are likely to be well received at first. “[Based on Camile’s trials], people loved having their food delivered by drone. There is massive novelty in this,” says Sweeney.

Mischa Dohler, however, takes a more skeptical approach: “Socially, it will take a while (if ever) for us to accept volatile things flying over our kids heads, which we know could potentially crash any time.” 

There are also significant fears that drones, like many other forms of automation, will lead to mass unemployment. During a Covid-19 recession that is pushing many people into packaging or food delivery, this fear is even more pronounced. The flying delivery boys are likely to make very appealing targets for disgruntled delivery drivers made redundant by drones. 

The counterargument is well known. “New forms of jobs will emerge. They always have, and always will,” as Mischa Dohler puts it. “This doesn’t mean that some sectors won’t suffer. Automation will decrease mundane jobs (such as driving a car) and form more exciting ones (being creative, helping other human beings, etc). Think of it as: AI will automate jobs and humanise work.” 

For example, drones are likely to create new jobs for packers, drone maintenance personnel, drone monitoring people, etc, says Dawande. Furthermore these jobs are likely to be higher paying ones.

In sum, drones will promote ‘cobot’ work (on-the-job partnering of human and robot) with each partner performing the roles they are better suited for. Allowing robots to complete repetitive mechanical tasks increases efficiency and decreases operational injuries. 

Governments and businesses will need to work closely to ensure that today’s workers have the right training and resources to handle future jobs. 

Education aside, one of the most major and critical challenges facing drone delivery is cyber security. Robots, by design, are networked machines where direct real-time remote access is needed to make sure things are kept under control, explains Dr Shaqura. 

“Hacking into the system of a fleet of delivery drones could cause tremendous damage,” he adds. 

In sum, while some design risks still exist, drone technology is gearing up to spread its wings. All eyes, therefore, are on governments and consumers: how fast will regulation move and will drones be deemed friend or foe?