Delivery drones may be key to fighting future pandemics

09 April 2020
The Condor drone from Drone Delivery Canada can deliver goods to those in remote areas and may be a way to fight future pandemics. Source: Drone Delivery Canada

The outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic has given way to social distancing becoming the new normal. To encourage this, the delivery of goods such as groceries, vital medicines and other cargo has become even more important than ever before.

One way to deliver goods is using drones. Drone delivery was on the rise even before the COVID-19 pandemic, but since the outbreak, those developing the technology are seeing a greater interest in what else they are capable of to fight future pandemics.

According to ABI Research, drones are already being used to fight the coronavirus, enforcing curfews and conducting security surveillance, opening opportunities for aerospace and drone companies to increase sales to government agencies. ABI forecasts drone delivery to reach $414 million by 2021 and reaching over $10.4 billion by 2030, driven by increased demand for consumer deliveries and medical facilities wanting to remove as much human interaction as possible.

COVID-19 has enabled drone delivery companies to demonstrate their worth and raise the profile of delivery drones as a use case for transporting goods in times of crisis and otherwise.

“In the past, the response to a pandemic or other disaster was to wait and then figure out what to do,” said Michael Zahra, CEO of Drone Delivery Canada. “I think we have learned from this pandemic that you need to have the infrastructure in place on standby just in case. When the dust settles, the coronavirus will raise the profile for drone logistics in general and raise the profile for drones as a use case in times of crisis.”

This includes putting infrastructure in place in both urban areas and remote communities where the drones can be used on an irregular basis, Zahra said. Drone Delivery Canada has seen increased leads coming from the federal government, provincial governments and hospitals as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic and as a future method for limiting person-to-person contact.

“Drones provide a unique solution to the issues brought on by the coronavirus crisis — bolstering delivery capacity while keeping citizens safe at home — and many are eager to put them to use,” said Yariv Bash, CEO and co-founder of drone delivery start-up Flytrex.

Since the implementation of social distancing and limited mobility, Flytrex has seen an increase in inquiries and Bash believes after the virus is under control, drone delivery will have a lasting impact on the industry, whether it is advancing technology, increasing commercial and public interest or simply raising awareness of the value of such systems.

Bash believes another result of the COVID-19 pandemic will be a sense of urgency from regulatory bodies to establish best practices and safety standards for incorporating drones into daily life and accelerating the pace of pilot programs for drone delivery.

In future pandemics, drones could help control person-to-person contact and still deliver goods to the population. Source: AdobeStockIn future pandemics, drones could help control person-to-person contact and still deliver goods to the population. Source: AdobeStock

Matternet has been operating pilot programs for drone delivery in Switzerland and the U.S. since 2017 with a focus on transporting tests to labs, bloodwork and other vital healthcare items from hospital to clinic, lab to pharmacy or vice versa.

“Healthcare delivery is a time-sensitive operation,” said Andreas Raptopoulos, CEO of Matternet. “We believe we can have tremendous impact to how healthcare is delivered by shortening the time that it takes to transport diagnostic tests to labs; and medicine to patients.”

Another use case could be the delivery of prescription medicine by drone from a pharmacy directly to a consumer. A drone would fly autonomously to the destination, descend to an altitude of about 20 ft and lower the package to the ground.

“No driver or truck going into the community, and, of course, no risk of exposure to the virus by going into the store,” Raptopoulos said.

Joining the fight

While future pandemics may see the increased use of drone delivery, that is not to say these devices are not already being used to combat COVID-19.

After the outbreak in China, the government issued a stay-in-place order to help control the virus. As most of the population complied, drone manufacturer DJI helped disinfect the main streets of many cities using modified agricultural spraying drones. Drones have proved useful for limiting the spread of coronavirus, enabling large spaces to be sterilized without placing humans in infected areas. Other countries such as Chile, Indonesia, the Philippines, Colombia and Spain have also been using drones for this purpose.

According to Research and Markets, drones are also being used to detect the virus. The University of South Australia is using drones equipped with temperature sensors and computer vision to identify symptoms of infectious respiratory diseases. These drones can remotely monitor temperature, heart and respiratory rates as well as detect coughing or sneezing from up to 10 m away. This allows researchers to get an idea of how widespread a virus might be in crowded places such as airports and healthcare facilities.

Zipline is working with government regulators to try to launch services as soon as possible in the U.S. for medical drone deliveries. The company has already started delivering goods in Rwanda and Ghana, supplying remote locations with much-needed medical supplies. In the U.S., which has the largest number of COVID-19 cases, drones could be used to deliver home equipment, enable telemedicine appointments or deliver healthcare items to people who are not able to visit the local drugstore.

Other drone deliveries are happening across the U.S. including a food truck in North Carolina that is using a drone to deliver to people in hard-to-reach areas, a construction company in Pennsylvania that is using drones to conduct inspections and evaluations in order to maintain social distancing while keeping work going during the pandemic and automaker Geely, which is using drones to deliver keys to new cars to drivers that purchase vehicles instead of getting the hand-off via a human salesperson.

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