• Drones are fast becoming a common feature of the supply chain.
  • Doctors are flying medicines and vaccines by drone to patients in some of the most remote places in the world.
  • Farmers are using drones to check on their crops from the air.
  • Some of the latest drones are no bigger than a bumble bee – and could be used for search and rescue operations.

The COVID-19 pandemic prompted drone companies to develop new uses for their technology, delivering vaccines in Africa and flying consumer goods to families stuck at home during lockdowns.

And drones are fast becoming a common feature of the supply chain.

Operators are developing heavy lifting systems capable of carrying up to 500kg. These drones have the potential to be more efficient and cost-effective than helicopters, trucks or ferries for delivering some types of goods, its proponents say.

This will be good news for people living long distances from the main transport networks, making it much easier for them to get food deliveries, medicines and industrial supplies. Even in countries with excellent transport links there is strong interest in using heavy-lift drones to reach people living in mountainous or desert areas.

Here are three companies attempting to take the technology to new heights.

1. Healthcare delivered by drone

Some of the biggest breakthroughs are in healthcare. One US medical drone company has been using drones to fly medical supplies to people living in rural parts of Rwanda and Ghana. Zipline’s lightweight drones can deliver packages from its distribution centres to clinics up to 85 kilometres away, cutting journey times and ensuring perishable supplies such as blood do not expire before they get to where they are needed.

Delivery times and units of blood expiry by roadway delivery vs autonomous aerial delivery.
How Zipline drones have been speeding up blood delivery in Rwanda.
Image: Suas News/Zipline

Zipline’s system was adapted quickly to support the struggle against COVID-19, helping Ghana to deliver 13% of its initial supply of the vaccine in just three days.

In the US, Zipline is delivering health products direct to consumers’ homes as part of a partnership with retail giant Walmart, CNBC reports. In Pea Ridge, Arkansas, residents can place orders online and have them flown in by drone on the same day.

The idea has also taken off in Japan, where the company is flying medical supplies to pharmacies and clinics in the Goto Islands off the western coast of Kyushu. “You can totally transform the way you react to pandemics, treat patients and do things like home healthcare delivery,” said Zipline Chief Executive Keller Rinaudo.

2. Crop-surveying drones

It’s not only in healthcare that drones are making a big difference. Farmers are putting drones into the sky as part of the modernization of agriculture. The Dutch company Corvus Drones has developed a system which allows crops to be monitored from seedlings right through to harvest. Instead of a farm worker manually inspecting crops, the drones continuously fly overhead checking leaf size, each stage of growth and providing early warning of possible pest attacks.

The drones can carry different sensors or cameras, so they can be used to monitor many different crops. The data they collect as they buzz through greenhouses is then sent as a table or a graph to the farmer’s inbox, revealing how the crop is growing, and whether there are any signs of disease or stress.

Corvus Drones says the measurements are many times more accurate and consistent than would be possible with the human eye, and the use of aerial surveillance saves farmers huge amounts of time.

3. Insect-sized drones

While heavy lifting drones are taking care of the big stuff, smaller drones are also proving their worth. MIT Assistant Professor Kevin Yufeng Chen has built tiny, insect-sized drones which could get to places impossible for more traditional designs to reach.

The mini drones weigh in at just 0.6g – about the mass of a bumble bee. They use carbon nanotube technology which allows them to flap their ‘wings’ at nearly 500 times a second. Chen hopes the robots could one day be used to pollinate crops or carry out inspections inside machines: “Think about the inspection of a turbine engine. You’d want a drone to move around [an enclosed space] with a small camera to check for cracks on the turbine plates,” he told MIT News.

The bee-sized drones could save lives, too. They might one day be used to help the rescue services after a disaster, capable of searching for casualties in locations which larger drones would find impossible to reach.

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.