How drones in cities can help distribute medical supplies

(Credit: Unsplash)

This article is brought to you thanks to the collaboration of The European Sting with the World Economic Forum.

Author: Ran Laviv, Director, Innovation and Entrepreneurial Affairs, Israel Government & Daniella Partem, Head, Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Israel & Jayant Narayan, Project Lead, World Economic Forum

  • Israel has scaled its drone operations in 1 year, with over 3,000 flight demonstrations supporting nationwide efforts to combat COVID-19.
  • Drones are being used in different “bubbles” across the state to deliver medical goods.
  • A better understanding of technical capabilities, use cases and gaps has come about thanks to the converging of key stakeholders and the public and private sectors on a common platform: the NAAMA Initiative.

Over the past few years, the world has witnessed various successful applications of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) in terms of delivering goods to remote areas, thus giving communities vital access to medical supplies.

Drones are being used for the delivery of medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana, but these success stories are restricted to remote areas. It follows that the next frontier for this technology will involve urban settings.

The urban environment could benefit greatly from integrating commercial uses of this technology into day-to-day living, such as the fast delivery of goods and emergency assistance. At its extreme, the replacement of cars could be on the horizon at some point in the distant future.

While there are many successful Israeli drone companies, the ecosystem is still tilted towards security applications.—Ran Laviv

However, cities also prove to be the hardest environments in which to implement this technology; drones would need to overcome many obstacles, safety hazards and dense ariel space. As such, the current scope of commercial use cases tested in urban environments around the world is limited.

That said, several countries have done some groundwork in their cities with successful demonstrations, and among them is Israel.

The Israeli context

Israeli airspace is beset by strict controls, limited commercial flying zones and a total absence of flying zones along its border. While there are many successful Israeli drone companies, the ecosystem is still tilted towards security applications.

This situation is further fed by a lack of economic opportunities to test civil applications, dense airspace, and a paucity of supporting regulation to enable the potential in this market.

Overcoming the challenge

In January 2020, NAAMA Initiative – a Hebrew acronym for city air transport – was launched. Key partners include the Israel Innovation Authority, Civil Aviation Authority of Israel (CAAI), Ayalon Highways, the Fuel Choices and Smart Mobility Initiative and the Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution Israel.

The initiative seeks to open Israel’s skies to commercial drone deliveries – seeing medical, transport and urban air mobility converge – and to allow for the agile regulation of UAS, thereby supporting the local ecosystem.

NAAMA Initiative’s vision on commercial drone deliveries for Israel Image: Authors’ own

Four takeaways the demonstrations delivered:

1. There’s a vibrant drone ecosystem out there

By bringing together the public and private sectors, the drone ecosystem can develop a better understanding of the needs of both sectors. This conversation provided regulators with an understanding of the technical capabilities, use cases and gaps, and how to support and build more resilient regulatory ecosystem.

Hospitals have expensive drugs that must be administered fast and cannot always be stored in hospitals storage units, lending UAS delivery the clear advantage over traditional means of transportation. —Daniella Partem

2. Agility is surprisingly easy

The entire process, from gap analysis to the issuing of technical RFP documents and the initial selection process, was completed in a period of five weeks. Its make-up was the following: two weeks for submission, one week for initial technical approval and an additional two weeks for formal approval by the tender committee.

The speed of this process increased the confidence of the players involved.

3. The medical industry needs drones

UAS has great potential in terms of continuing to perform commercial delivery for the medical sector. Hospitals have expensive drugs that must be administered fast and cannot always be stored in hospitals storage units, lending UAS delivery the clear 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 to save money on expensive storage and react quickly to changing situations on the ground.

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 permission for it enables a drone to cover far greater distances. Unlike VLOS flights, which are operated within the pilot’s line of sight, BVLOS flights are flown beyond the visual range.

BVLOS considerations are integral to any testing program, and proved to be incredibly challenging from a regulatory standpoint in this one.

Key achievements of the NAAMA Initiative over a year Image: Authors’ own

Bubbles: their creation and uses

There were three factors to take into consideration when drawing up the bubbles: community need, accessibility and local partners in each potential bubble.

We first deployed simple delivery between two spots in one hospital with the goal of progressing to advanced delivery between different hospitals in the same bubble.

By leveraging the extent of Israel’s land mass and the fact it has sufficient state-wide train accessibility, a “competition” between a drone and a taxi was launched.

The drone was tested as a first- and last-mile solution, carrying medical goods to a train station, the train then carrying them to a city 60 miles north, before finally delivering the goods to a facility near the station.

By avoiding traffic congestion, the drone took 100 minutes to deliver the package, faring much better than the taxi which takes 150 minutes, on average, for the same delivery. Combined with Israel’s largely accessible train network, drones will be able to deliver goods to longer distances with lower costs and less time.

Public acceptance will be a key factor in being able to scaledrones operations in an urban setting.—Jayant Narayan

Using the bubble strategy, trains can now carry drones with goods to almost any point in the country.

What’s next?

The large-scale pilot will next be used for forecasting and modeling large-scale operations, and for looking into the economic feasibility of it all for drones companies. For instance, factors such as the number of flights required for drone companies to operate profitably would be looked into.

Scaling up the demonstrations in the next two years will in turn open up the ecosystem to international drone companies and generate a crucial industry-government learning for the benefit of all.

Public acceptance will be a key factor in being able to scale drone operations in an urban setting. To that end, C4IR Israel – the Israeli hub of the WEF C4IR network at the Israel Innovation Authority, which has centers in 13 countries worldwide that advance smart regulation for emerging technologies such as AI and blockchain – hosted the first International Drone Roundtable in March 2021. The goal was to initiate a dialogue among 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.

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