How drones in cities can help distribute medical supplies
- Israel has stepped up its drone operations in 1 year, with more than 3,000 flight demonstrations supporting national efforts to fight COVID-19.
- Drones are used in various “bubbles” across the state to deliver medical products.
- A better understanding of technical capacities, use cases and gaps has been made possible by the convergence of key stakeholders and the public and private sectors on a common platform: the NAAMA Initiative.
In recent years, the world has witnessed various successful applications of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) in terms of delivering goods to remote areas, thereby providing communities with vital access to medical supplies.
Drones are used to deliver medical supplies to Rwanda and Ghana, but these successes are limited to remote areas. It follows that the next frontier of this technology will be in urban areas.
The urban environment could benefit greatly from integrating commercial uses of this technology into everyday life, such as the rapid delivery of goods and emergency aid. At its extreme, car replacement could be on the horizon in the distant future.
While there are many successful Israeli drone companies out there, the ecosystem is still geared towards security applications.
However, cities are also proving to be the most difficult environments to implement this technology; drones would have to overcome many obstacles, security risks and dense airspace. As such, the current scope of commercial use cases tested in urban environments across the world is limited.
Having said that, several countries have done preparatory work in their cities with successful protests, and among them is Israel.
Israeli airspace is beset by tight controls, limited commercial flight zones and a complete lack of flight zones along its border. While there are many successful Israeli drone companies, the ecosystem is still geared towards security applications.
This situation is further fueled by a lack of economic opportunities to test civilian applications, dense airspace and a lack of supporting regulations to activate the potential of this market.
In January 2020, the NAAMA initiative – a Hebrew acronym for urban air transport – was launched. Key partners include the Israel Innovation Authority, the Israel Civil Aviation Authority (CAAI), Ayalon Highways, the Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initiative and the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Israel.
The initiative aims to open Israel’s skies to commercial drone deliveries – seeing medical services, transport and urban air mobility converge – and enable agile regulation of UAS, thereby supporting the local ecosystem.
Four points to remember from the delivered demonstrations:
1. There is a vibrant drone ecosystem
By bringing the public and private sectors together, the drone ecosystem can develop a better understanding of the needs of both sectors. This conversation enabled regulators to understand technical capabilities, use cases and gaps, and how to support and build a more resilient regulatory ecosystem.
Hospitals have expensive drugs that need to be administered quickly and cannot always be stored in hospital storage units, giving UAS delivery a distinct advantage over traditional means of transportation.
2. Agility is surprisingly easy
The entire process, from the gap analysis to the release of the RFP technical documents and the initial selection process, was completed in five weeks. Its composition was as follows: two weeks for submission, one week for initial technical approval and two additional weeks for formal approval by the tender committee.
The speed of this process has increased the confidence of the actors involved.
3. The medical industry needs drones
UAS has great potential in terms of further commercial delivery for the medical sector. Hospitals have expensive drugs that need to be administered quickly and cannot always be stored in hospital storage units, giving UAS delivery a distinct advantage over traditional means of transportation. This alone presents an opportunity for UAS to be a game-changer in the medical supply chain of the future.
Because of its speed, UAS can help hospitals save money on expensive storage and respond quickly to changing situations in the field.
4. Keeping the drone in sight is complex
Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) is perhaps the most talked about thing in the drone industry. Having the permission allows a drone to cover much greater distances. Unlike VLOS flights, which are performed in the pilot’s line of sight, BVLOS flights are performed beyond visual range.
BVLOS considerations are an integral part of any testing program and have proven to be incredibly difficult from a regulatory perspective in it.
Bubbles: their creation and uses
There were three factors to consider when developing bubbles: community needs, accessibility, and local partners in each potential bubble.
We first deployed simple delivery between two points in the same hospital with the aim of moving to advanced delivery between different hospitals in the same bubble.
By taking advantage of Israel’s vast land mass and the fact that it has sufficient state-wide rail accessibility, a “competition” between a drone and a taxi has been initiated.
The drone was tested as a first and last mile solution, transporting medical supplies to a station, the train then transporting them to a town 60 miles north, before finally delivering the products to a facility near from the station.
By avoiding traffic jams, the drone took 100 minutes to deliver the package, much better than the taxi, which takes 150 minutes, on average, for the same delivery. Combined with Israel’s widely accessible rail network, drones will be able to deliver goods over longer distances cheaply and in less time.
Public acceptance will be a key factor in being able to scale up urban drone operations.
Thanks to the bubble strategy, trains can now carry drones with cargo to almost any point in the country.
The large-scale pilot will then be used for forecasting and modeling large-scale operations, and to study the economic feasibility of all of this for drone companies. For example, factors such as the number of flights required for drone companies to operate profitably would be considered.
The intensification of demonstrations over the next two years will in turn open up the ecosystem to international drone companies and generate crucial learning between industry and government for the benefit of all.
Public acceptance will be a key factor in being able to expand drone operations in urban settings. To this end, C4IR Israel – the Israeli hub of the WEF C4IR network at the Israel Innovation Authority, which has centers in 13 countries around the world that advance smart regulation for emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain – hosted the first international roundtable on drones in March 2021. The objective was to initiate a dialogue within the global community.
The hub is currently planning a series of discussions with civil society groups to understand the respective concerns and perspectives of regulators and drone companies.