Fourth Industrial Revolution

Why the future is bright for drone technology

Workers pack a box of vaccines to be delivered by a Zipline drone, in Ghana April 22, 2019.

In Ghana, drones delivered 13% of the country’s initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccine in just 3 days Image: Gavi/2019/Tony Noel

Khaled Abusalem
Chairman of UAV and Robotics , Saudi Aramco
Mansour Alsaleh
Head, Innovation Hub, Saudi Central Bank
Timothy Reuter
Head of Aerospace and Drones, World Economic Forum LLC
Talal Alsedairy
Director, Space & Aeronautics Research Institute, King Abdulaziz City for Science and Technology (KACST)
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  • During the pandemic, drones have helped communities to access goods and services.
  • Regulators across the globe are now looking at ways to support the expansion of drone technology, exploring carrying heavier loads and transporting people.
  • Saudi Arabia could become a global leader for emerging drone technologies.

Over the past year we have seen drones become more relevant to people’s lives. The technology has matured, and during the pandemic there has been a new urgency about finding new ways of accessing goods and services. In Ghana, drones delivered 13% of the country’s initial shipment of COVID-19 vaccine in just 3 days. In the United States, the Alphabet-owned drone delivery company Wing saw demand for its services double as people looked for contactless ways to get access to consumer goods.

In response, many regulators across the globe have demonstrated interest in helping this industry to expand its operations.They are granting more approvals under current frameworks, and also adopting more comprehensive frameworks to enable larger scale drone operations

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Previously, drones were only capable of transporting light packages. But a new class of system is emerging that can carry 70 kg to 500kg loads, depending on the aircraft. This means that new delivery models can be more efficient and cost-effective than existing helicopter, truck, or ferry-based infrastructure, especially for goods that are of high social or economic value in areas that are not well served by current infrastructure. Remote, rural, and offshore communities can receive essential goods via autonomous aerial systems, if the right regulations can be put in place.

Heavy-lift drone delivery has recently reached a level of technical maturity, and the systems are ready for certification by civil aviation authorities. Approving heavy cargo operations may also serve as a bridge to platforms that carry people, such as Advanced Aerial Mobility (AAM) and Urban Aerial Mobility (UAM), as the technology is similar. AAM platforms have seen a rapid influx of capital. In the last six months, four companies - Joby Aviation, Lilium, Archer, and Elevation Aerospace - have announced plans to go public later this year.


What is the World Economic Forum doing about drones?

Saudi Arabia could become a global leader in enabling heavy lift cargo solutions, and serve as a hub for emerging drone technologies. Although Saudi Arabia generally has excellent transportation infrastructure, some communities still have poor access to important medical and general consumer and industrial supplies due to complicated mountain, dessert, or water terrain. The country's Vision 2030 notes a “significant backlog across the road network, leading to inadequate transport infrastructure,” along with a strategic objective to “promoting ease/possibility of living across [the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia].” Heavy-lift drone delivery offers an opportunity to address these challenges and objectives.

However, regulation and business models lag behind and in some cases actively prevent companies from realising the potential of this technology. Public-private collaboration is needed to make sure cargo drones develop in a way that protects public safety, ensures community interests are represented, and considers how the integration of new technologies into supply chains is done in a cost-effective manner.

The World Economic Forum and the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Saudi Arabia are initiating a heavy-lift drone project. This will support the Saudi Ministry of Transport and the General Authority of Civil Aviation to develop a regulatory framework, building on successful collaborations with Rwanda, Switzerland, India, and other governments on this topic. The Forum also works with key stakeholders from the private and public sectors in Saudi Arabia to identify socially beneficial uses for heavy-lift drone delivery, and make sure the regulations support them.

By integrating these two mutually supportive components of regulatory transformation and pilot tests, Saudi Arabia can be a model for the rest of the world while supporting its own industrial development and social goals. The Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in Saudi Arabia will launch its first ‘Saudi Forum for the Fourth Industrial Revolution: Harnessing 4IR’ that will take place in Riyadh on July 28-29th of this year. The forum will gather a broad range of senior international policy experts and leaders from the public and private sectors in the region to discuss, among other topics, the opportunities that we can seize with the advent of the 4IR to advance efficiency, sustainability, and economic growth.

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