• Drones have become an important tool in fighting the COVID-19 pandemic, helping to create more resilient supply chains and socially distanced delivery services.
  • The crisis is driving innovation in drone policy as society has started to recognize that the utility of drones outweighs potential risks.
  • Fully integrating drones into supply chains will require collaboration and drive.

The way the world views drones is changing. Once a nuisance buzzing around our heads, drones are now life-saving tools in the battle against COVID-19.

Instead of nuisance or novelty, drones are becoming necessary.

Drones are shifting from a hyped-up super technology that can solve every challenge to a tool that can allow us to meet specific needs. This shift allows us to focus on specific implementations that drive the greatest return. Capital investments in some sectors are panning out, while markets are maturing around these uses. New aerial technologies are set to play a major role in an economy looking for innovative ways to meet the demands of the coronavirus crisis – and looking toward a global reset.

But integrating drones into supply chains takes a lot more than technology. It takes expertise across the ecosystem. It takes risk takers and visionaries across pay grades. Most importantly, it takes an entirely new way of thinking about aviation.

Dire times drive innovation. In this instance, the innovation is not in technology, but in policy. While some argue that drone technology wasn’t mature enough to be trusted at large scale – and cultural questions around privacy, noise and annoyance have hampered the expansion of flights – a societal and governmental shift in evaluating acceptable risk is driving greater implementation. With air travel down nearly 90% and dramatically fewer cars on the road due to shelter-in-place orders, the risks drones might present in the air and on the ground are significantly reduced. Meanwhile, pressure has been mounting to streamline drone use to deliver vital goods, support social distancing and enable essential workers to operate with greater efficiency and efficacy.

The times call for new technologies that connect the disconnected, provide resilience to at-risk supply chains and promote social distancing in last-mile delivery. Here’s how drones can play an important role ­– and why this crisis might usher in the Golden Age of drone delivery.

The early adopters are winning

A few early adopters approached drones with vigor. Rwanda saw the opportunity to save lives and prevent waste in their blood supply chain through drone deliveries, becoming the first country in the world with more drone flights than traditional ones. Switzerland embraced drones years before other nations, realizing benefits at small scale and taking a leadership position in Europe. In Australia, drone delivery of consumer products was tried and tested with mixed results, but significant lessons were learned along the way. Chinese e-commerce leader JD.com has launched multiple projects in cities across rural China, expanding use as soon as COVID-19 hit. It’s those companies and countries who have learned the most over the past three years of flight operations that are saving lives and delivering the most significant results from drones.

Just as World War I drove innovation and familiarity with the first commercial airplanes, so, too, has COVID-19 accelerated the use of drones for delivery of goods. Around the world, people are relying on deliveries to obtain food, medicines and other goods, and drones are starting to help.

The collaboration between the United Postal Service (UPS) and drone company Matternet, having first operated in Switzerland, became the first approved drone prescription delivery service in the United States, on 27 April 2020s, while UPS announced a new partnership with Wingcopter to their lineup for drone delivery of packages. Meanwhile, Alphabet’s Wing recently doubled deployment rates during the pandemic, enabling greater access to customers and providing a lifeline to local businesses. Wing’s partners have claimed a 50% increase in sales of certain goods thanks to the drone deliveries during the crisis.

What’s changing?

At the core of greater drone adoption is not significant technological maturation but rather a recognition that the utility of drones outweighs potential risks, such as collision with aircraft or use by bad actors. Society has begun to see a benefit from drones. And while the risk equation has not changed, pressure to address an existential threat (COVID-19) combined with a mandate for leadership has opened minds and incentivized decision makers to consider not just the risks, but also the benefits. In other words, government decision makers are being asked – for the first time in some developed economies – to expand what’s possible in response to the crisis.

In the United States, this expansion has led to regulatory exemptions to fast-track the process as a way to take humans out of dangerous situations – such as oil and gas inspections, or, as another example, to reduce human contact during the pandemic. Leveraging extensive knowledge gained in Rwanda and, more recently, testing delivery and collection of COVID-19 tests in Ghana, Zipline announced it will expand its US operations to deliver Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) in partnership with Novant Health near Charlotte, North Carolina.

The Golden Age will require collaboration and drive

While the expansion of drone services in the United States is something to cheer, it does not necessarily represent a long-term shift in thinking. The latest regulatory exemptions specifically cite COVID-19 as an accelerator for approvals; they expire 30 June or upon “the expiration of the federal, state, or local COVID-19 recommendations or requirements.” This change in approach is being met with scepticism by some in the drone industry, who feel that only large and well-connected companies who have worked with the authorities in programs like the UAS International Pilot Program (IPP) will continue to operate after the immediate crisis ends. Working together as an industry to highlight the benefits and how to achieve best results will be critical in the coming year; as will learning from the success across the globe.

What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?

The World Economic Forum is partnering with governments and companies to create flexible regulations that allow drones to be manufactured and used in various ways to help society and the economy.

Drones can do many wonderful things, but their upsides are often overshadowed by concerns about privacy, collisions and other potential dangers. To make matters worse, government regulations have not been able to keep up with the speed of technological innovation.

In 2017 the World Economic Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution teamed up with the Government of Rwanda to draft the world’s first framework for governing drones at scale. Using a performance-based approach that set minimum safety requirements instead of equipment specifications, this innovative regulatory framework gave drone manufacturers the flexibility to design and test different types of drones. These drones have delivered life-saving vaccines, conducted agricultural land surveys, inspected infrastructure and had many other socially beneficial uses in Rwanda.

Today, the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution is working with governments and companies in Africa, Asia, Europe and North America to co-design and pilot agile policies that bring all the social and economic benefits of drone technology while minimizing its risks.

Read more here, and contact us if you're interested in getting involved with the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution's pioneering work in the governance of emerging technologies.

For years, we’ve known we must implement holistic approaches to drone service approvals that balance the risks against the benefits to society. To educate and inspire regulators around the world, we must continue to work with companies, humanitarian organizations and civil society to highlight the best uses of drones with real data to support efforts, bridge the gaps and advance the industry. Meanwhile, we need to recognize that today’s professional logistics drones run by experts can be trusted – and we have the data prove it.

The technology is ready and the mechanisms for oversight are catching up – out of necessity. At a time when society needs drones the most, the Golden Age of drones is finally coming.