A new drone corridor in Bedfordshire could provide a testing ground for retailers to test and demonstrate new automated delivery systems, says the founder of the company behind the initiative.
Since August 2018, autonomy specialist Blue Bear and the University of Cranfield have been collaborating on a site for conducting drone experiments. Called the National Beyond visual line of sight Experimentation Corridor (NBEC), the test site will eventually allow drones to be flown beyond line of sight and alongside other air traffic.
Ian Williams-Wynn, MD of Blue Bear, tells eDelivery that companies including retailers will be able to use the NBEC to carry out tests and then submit the data to regulators to win their own licences for commercial use.
There are retailers interested in the project, although Williams-Wynn cannot currently share specific details. An example use case for a retailer might be mocking up an automated warehouse where goods are automatically picked and then loaded onto a drone, before being flown to the other end of the drone corridor.
Williams-Wynn emphasises that drones are already being used for commercial use, including for building inspections or by film crews for aerial footage. Beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) applications are slightly further away. While it is still possible to obtain specific licenses for BVLOS flying, Williams-Wynn says that regular commercial use is two to five years away.
For retail deliveries by drone to be useful they will need to be able to address urban areas. As Williams-Wynn says, this introduces additional barriers such as flying over people’s houses, dealing with a noisy radio frequency environment and the risk of vandalism.
However, he cites the example of a new suburb in Tokyo where people will order groceries by drone as the default, showing how progress can be made with regulator support.
What is particularly novel about this test corridor is the fact that the operational safety case (OSC) is being obtained for the corridor not for the individual trials of the companies that will use it. Under current permissions the site can support longer distance tests but requires spotters to be placed at regular intervals along the corridor. The Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) will make a decision on granting this permission at some point this year, with around £200,000 of cost and six months of work ahead on improving the technology, gathering proof and demonstrating safe operations.
“That will be a huge leap for the UK if we can get that permission,” says Williams-Wynn.
The technology is ready, argues Williams-Wynn. But in regulatory terms, what actually needs to be done to get drones off the ground?
Most readers in the UK will remember how what was suspected to be a drone sighting at Gatwick caused disruption to the flights over 100,000 people. Williams-Wynn says the unfortunate debacle has set the drone industry back five years, both from a regulatory standpoint and in terms of public perception. There have been calls for further legislation on drones at a national level as well as local authorities moving to ban them in specific areas.
He says that this has created much more work for the industry to change perceptions, as well as undone much of the good press around drones, such as their use in medicine delivery in Africa. He rejects the charge that drones are easier to get hold of than other potentially disruptive technologies and says that the “perception of what a drone can do is disproportionate”.
The argument is that wrong-doers will break the law anyway.
“The legal use of drones in a safe and managed way is appropriate,” he says. “The public should not look at the Gatwick incident as the norm. Assuming it was somebody flying a drone, they were doing it illegally. If people break the law they break the law.”
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