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In the past few weeks Google Wing has been given permission to deliver in Canberra, Australia, will do so shortly in Helsinki, Finland and plans to do so by the end of the year in Blacksburg and Christiansburg, Virginia, USA. The FAA approved Wing as its first air carrier certified for drone delivery in April 2019.

Google Wing deliver by lowering the package.

Here in the UK, Amazon is part of the CAA’s ‘Innovation Sandbox’, which is being initially funded by a grant from the Department for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy (BEIS). It is a new virtual space in which new technology can be safely texted. Amazon’s project is designed to safely get packages to customers in 30 minutes or less using unmanned aerial vehicles.

Amazon Prime Air recruited recently for an operative to be based near Cambridge and has successfully recruited someone with the necessary experience. It’s going to happen! The CAA Innovation Sandbox is designed to share the regulatory experience for everyone to learn from, with commercially sensitive information safeguarded.

But how do we, the UK public, feel about drone delivery?

All of the above are trialling their deliveries with local partners, coffee shops, gelaterias and pharmacies. The aerial vehicles’ noise and safety are the main source of controversy surrounding their usage. While Google’s pilot program is still in its infancy, it does have to follow specific local policies in Canberra meant to protect locals from disturbances. For example, the Wing drones cannot fly over main roads or too close to people, and will have to make deliveries during daytime hours. These will include hours of operation between 7 a.m. and 8 p.m. on weekdays.

This is the commercial side of drone delivery and one that isn’t necessarily helping the industry as a whole. PwC recently undertook a survey on the Public’s perception of drones, showing that less than 1/3 of the population feel positive towards drones. The PwC research found public opposition to drones reduces when people are presented with specific, beneficial use cases of drones. Importantly it is not always about a benefit to the individual. In fact, uses with a wider benefit to society scored most highly, especially those related to health and safety.

While some of us may want our own deliveries to come quickly by drone, do we really want our neighbours to receive such deliveries, especially if our neighbour is a serial online shopper? We’ve probably all gladly taken in a package or two for a neighbour, but whether we’d feel so magnanimous when next door’s drone deliveries start turning up and buzzing over our garden is another matter.

Zipline deliver by parachute

In Africa, drones are being used to deliver medicine and are seen far more favourably. Zipline has made over 15,000 deliveries by drone in Rwanda and Ghana. In countries where the national infrastructure is challenging, drones offer a great deal, delivering to islands, jungle villages and other remote areas. They deliver blood, medicine and vaccines. Zipline is now also one of ten companies selected by the FAA for Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) projects in North Carolina, USA with deliveries going live summer 2019. Zipline CEO Keller Rinaudo is aware that healthcare logistics is worth $70billion globally, but also confirmed that moving cargo other than medical supplies is something Zipline has considered.

In April a drone delivered a transplant kidney, only over a trial 3 miles. The team’s leader, Dr. Joseph R. Scalea, an assistant professor of surgery at the University of Maryland School of Medicine, said he pursued the project after constant frustration over organs taking too long to reach his patients. After organs are removed from a donor, they become less healthy with each passing second. He recalled one case when a kidney from Alabama took 29 hours to reach his hospital. Transplanted at 9 hours, the patient would have received several more years of life. Every minute counts in transplants.

In WakeMed Hospital, North Carolina, USA a trial is taking place delivering samples for testing to help speed up the diagnosis time. It is envisaged that this will take between 30minutes and 3 hours off the diagnosis time, when compared to traditional means of delivery across the campus. Up to 200 medical samples are being flown 8 times a day over the 3 year trial. The drone delivery program was the idea of Dr. Stuart Ginn, a former United Airlines pilot. Dr. Ginn believes that medical samples will soon be flown by drone between hospitals that are miles apart, and that one day they may deliver to remote rural hospitals as well.

Here in the UK, another of the CAA’s Innovation Sandbox projects is one run by NESTA. The Flying High programme aims to maximise the economic and social benefits of drone technology to UK cities. They are working to challenge and develop sustainable drone systems to create a safe, innovative future. This is part two of their Challenge, working with 5 cities around the UK. Two elements they were looking at was the delivery of blood between London hospitals, and medicines between Southampton and the Isle of Wight. Will these be as popular, as in Ghana and Rwanda?

Conclusion: Are Amazon Prime Air and Google Wing going about it the right way or is Zipline: Is the way into the market to prove the idea via an ethically good concept and then extend, with proven, positive backing into a more commercial area?

With an undeniably good track record, the answer is very, very possibly.

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