Zulfath Saheed provides an update on drone technology applications

Unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) – or drones as they are more commonly known – have been in the news for some years. On the one hand, they have been identified as a weapon of choice by global powers such as the US, which is responsible for an estimated 423 attacks (at end-February last year) conducted using drones.

Drones are also recognised as a means of delivering goods to those who are most in need, especially when disaster strikes and communities cannot be reached by conventional modes of transport.

Taking the idea of delivery by drones a step further, Amazon debuted its Prime Air customer delivery service with the help of an electric quadcopter drone in December. The test launch saw the delivery of a shoebox-size package (it contained a Fire TV device and bag of popcorn) to a customer in the UK that was a couple of miles away and was completed in 13 minutes.

The buzz surrounding delivery using drones has evidently reached fever pitch. One might even be tempted to assume that the future will see drones actively populating the skies in their attempt to deliver products to customers. But there are several issues that must be considered first.

REGULATORY CONSTRAINTS The regulatory environment has at times proved an obstacle to drone operations. In the case of the Amazon Prime Air service, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) rules for commercial drone operations suggest they’re not welcome in US airspace.

Closer to home, the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) of Sri Lanka mandates its approval for the operation of drones in the country.

As part of a set of Implementing Standards issued in February 2016, CAA notes that for the operation (for commercial purposes) of “pilotless aircraft of any weight category shall not be operated for hire or reward unless special approval is obtained from the Director General of Civil Aviation in writing after payment of the specified fee on [a] case-by-case basis.”

LOGISTICAL CHALLENGES Drone deliveries are also typically not considered viable for urban environments. But while they may represent a major challenge for traditional retailers and delivery service providers, rural areas are a more attractive prospect for drone deliveries given the existence of wide open spaces.

Drones could also face challenges like losing power, complete breakdowns, or colliding with objects or persons during flight. Moreover, they could be shot down by individuals on the ground or even subjected to software hacks. And one cannot discount the impact of weather restrictions and cargo weight limitations (currently standing at five pounds a delivery).

FLYING WAREHOUSES Amazon has also received a patent for what is referred to as an ‘airborne fulfilment centre utilising unmanned aerial vehicles for item delivery.’ Essentially warehouse blimps with packages delivered by drones, these fulfilment centres actas temporary destinations for goods between a manufacturer and consumer.

Popular Science magazine notes that “as with all speculative patents, this is the early stage of a possible future, a heavily refined version of an outline on a napkin for a technology that might someday enter into being. What’s notable is the vision it promises: near-instantaneous, doorstep delivery in a world where the only people explicitly mentioned are customers.”

PILOT PROJECTS But Amazon is not the only global commercial entity looking to make use of drone technology for deliveries. Also in the US, convenience store chain 7-Eleven reported that it had delivered food items to a customer in Nevada in July last year. And in August, Domino’s delivered a pizza by drone in the outskirts of Auckland.

Earlier in March, Maersk Tankers delivered supplies by drone to a ship off the coast of Denmark. In addition, Google’s Project Wing delivered food items to the Australian outback some three years ago.

With a broader social focus, California-based Zipline uses drone technology to drop much-needed blood supplies to out-of-the-way clinics in Rwanda while UNICEF is reportedly working with the Malawi government to test drones that would assist humanitarian causes.

DELIVERY PERKS Experts argue that despite the regulatory challenges that service providers will need to overcome – and even if drones are able to handle only a limited share of total deliveries – the impact of drone technology could very well be extensive.

For instance, a commercial entity may not need to have as many costly logistical operations or truck drivers. Moreover, drones could lead to environmental benefits given their lower dependence on vehicles and so would curb harmful emissions.

The most substantial benefit however, could be derived by customers themselves – they would receive orders much sooner than they do today.