Drone deliveries have been promised for some time, but could the Covid-19 coronavirus pandemic finally make them a reality?

It is now estimated that around 20% of the world’s population is in isolation, with 29 countries imposing a total or partial lockdown, as of March 26.

With many now only permitted to shop for food or medical supplies, and all non-essential retailers in locations such as the UK instructed to close until further notice, many are turning to ecommerce to buy goods.

According to research by Ipsos MORI, 50% of Chinese and 31% of Italian consumers say they’re using ecommerce ‘more frequently’ as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.

However, this creates logistical challenges for those delivering purchases to consumers while social distancing, as well as contending with the fact that many organisations may have a growing number of employees off sick.

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Last week, Royal Mail workers in the UK called for a limit on non-essential deliveries in order to limit the chance of postal workers catching the virus, and some Amazon workers in the US have gone on strike due to a lack of protective gear.

As a result, there has been a renewed interest in the use of drone deliveries during and beyond the coronavirus crisis.

Drone deliveries: Accelerated by the coronavirus pandemic?

Drones have already been deployed as part of efforts to contain the spread of the pandemic, with authorities in the UK now deploying drones to distribute public information messages to those not following social distancing measures, as well as surveying individuals’ temperatures and disinfect urban areas in parts of China.

The concept of drone deliveries has been around for a while with e-commerce giants such as Amazon showing interest, but in many countries, the technology is yet to have a large impact on the e-commerce market. However, it is possible that the coronavirus pandemic may fast-track developments in the drone deliveries industry.

According to ResearchAndMarkets, the drone market is expected to reach $27.4bn, driven by “an increase in demand for faster delivery, amendments in the regulatory framework”.

Some companies have already begun taking steps to roll out drone delivery services, such as international package delivery company UPS partnering with drone startup Wingcopter to develop a new delivery drone fleet capable of transporting a variety of goods over long distances.

Amazon’s drone delivery unit, Prime Air, also recently announced it was hiring former Boeing executive David Carbon to head up its drone business.

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“COVID-19 puts these technologies under the spotlight”

Alphabet subsidiary Wing, which already has a fleet of autonomous drones carrying out deliveries in parts of Australia and US as part of its pilot programme, told Verdict that it is currently in talks with authorities about whether its technology can be of use in the ongoing coronavirus pandemic:

“Wing is in discussions with public authorities to determine if there is any support we can provide them at this time. Our technology can provide access to critical medication, food and other necessities when limiting human-to-human contact is important.”

Chinese company JD has been working with local government to expand drone delivery in response to the pandemic. The World Economic Forum described how the company “conducted ground surveys, designed flight corridors, requested airspace access permission and conducted final flight tests”, and is recommending that drones become a part of the international response to crises like coronavirus, and encouraging greater coordination between the public and private sector on regulation.

In a blogpost, JD said:

“JD drones have played an important role in supporting the fight against Covid-19, including delivering the daily necessities to Chinese consumers as well as assisting several major cities in China to provide protective measures when more people return to work after the Chinese New Year holiday.”

“Due to the outbreak of Covid-19 in China, these “contactless” logistics solutions have attracted public interest. Drones and autonomous delivery robots can not only drive results without the risk of human contact but also help enterprises improve efficiency and reduce cost. But, it can only do so when the applications are available at scale. There is no clear outlook for when autonomous technologies will be available as such.

“There are still challenges ahead, like clear industry standards and policies, the stability of high-speed networks, battery charging solutions and so on. However, the outbreak of Covid-19 indeed puts these technologies under the spotlight and is causing enterprises to rethink how much they should invest to further develop these technologies.”

“There is an opportunity here to allow drones to safely play a part”

In many countries, however, strict drone regulation may prevent rollouts at such scale. In the UK and the US, for example, current regulation means that it is illegal to fly drones out of the pilot’s line of sight. In addition, many drones do not have the capacity to transport large payloads, making them impractical for large deliveries of groceries.

Amazon’s electric delivery drone, which it debuted last year, can carry a payload of just five pounds.

Alan Hicks, CTO of Manna told Verdict that aviation authorities play a key role in the benefits of drone deliveries being fully realised:

“Drone delivery and other innovative delivery platforms are perfectly placed to assist in the delivery of vital items in times such as these. Frontline workers, delivery drivers, the postal service are all under huge pressure supporting communities. There is an opportunity here to allow drones to safely play a part in delivering vital supplies at scale to isolated communities and hospitals, reducing some of the mounting pressure off our frontline workers.

“Drones and the technology that has been developed around them can be adapted to provide these vital services.In order to make this work the Aviation Authorities will need to collaborate further with commercial drone delivery platforms to implement short term regulations for the most necessary times of this pandemic.”

The Irish startup, which plans to use drones to deliver directly from restaurants and centralised kitchens to consumer’s homes in under three minutes, has had to delay its launch at University College Dublin this month due to the coronavirus pandemic.

Robots may be part of the solution

As well as drones, other organisations are focusing their efforts closer to the ground in the form of autonomous delivery robots. Starship Technologies recently expanded its robot delivery services in Milton Keynes town centre, with food and grocery deliveries available to 180,000 people.

A Starship spokesperson told Verdict that the the company has plans to expand “due to high demand”:

“We can appreciate we’re all living in unprecedented times now, but we believe as a community we can work together to help each other and we’re honoured that our robots can be part of the solution.

“Due to high demand, we plan to expand very soon into other areas across the US and UK.

“Our robots provide contactless deliveries. As people are spending more time at home at the moment, including the elderly and more vulnerable, they can get their food and groceries delivered straight to their door. We are working as quickly as possible to expand our robot delivery service so we can help more people and we’ve had grocery stores, restaurants and other delivery companies get in touch to ask for assistance from our robots. To date the robots have completed over 100,000 autonomous deliveries, travelled over 500,000 miles and completed over 5,000,000 road crossings around the world.”

Although drone deliveries may not become a regular sight in skies around the world in the near future, the coronavirus pandemic will undoubtedly lead to a reevaluation of how businesses across industries operate, with many retailers already re-thinking how they reach customers while ensuring employee safety.

This will undoubtedly bring with it renewed concern for drone surveillance and the implications for human jobs, especially at a time when many are facing job insecurity, but emerging technologies such as delivery drones and robots, supported by the right regulation, may be part of the solution to meeting heightened demand for ecommerce safely and effectively.


Read more: Robot delivery service comes to first UK town centre.