Corona crisis creates drone opportunities

May 13, 2020

Drones have already been used in NZ’s Covid response.

With crisis comes opportunity, and with Covid-19 comes new impetus to utilise drones for the likes of contactless transport of medicines and spotting lockdown curfew breakers.

The head of strategy for New Zealand’s air traffic controller, Airways Corporation, said from the offset of Covid-19 it had been “all hands to the pump” to investigate how drones could be used to combat the virus.

However, one seasoned operator believes the key to a successful business model would be diversification beyond dealing with the pandemic.

Utilising drones to fight Covid-19 is already happening around the world.

The ability to fly medicines is being worked on in the UK, where the government plans to create a link between Hampshire and the Isle of Wight.

Trent Fulcher, head of strategy at state-owned enterprise Airways, pointed to numerous other examples, including in the US, where they monitored curfew breakers, and China, where they were able to infrared scan crowds to spot anyone with signs of fever.

AirShare CEO, Trent Fulcher

AirShare CEO, Trent Fulcher

The Ministry of Transport is already working on legislation that would allow for greater adoption of drone technology around the country.

However, in some ways, drones were already part of the country’s response to Covid-19.

Fulcher said there were companies, including in Auckland, using drones to provide security for worksites and commercial premises left empty by the lockdown.

Humanitarian uses, such as supplying medicines, and enforcement operations during lockdowns are still limited by current legislation.

Fulcher said those laws include stipulations that drones must receive permission from landowners they fly above, and that they must generally be within the sight of the operator.

Despite those obstacles, he said projects undertaken in the past year made extended drone use far more realistic. 

These include a trial at Auckland Airport, where a drone radar equipped with a high-res camera tracked and identified nearby drones, allowing air traffic control to ascertain whether they were allowed to be there.

Another project involved using New Zealand’s mobile phone network to track and ID drones around the country.

AirShare, a new drone traffic management system, is also laying the groundwork for safe drone flight around the country.

Fulcher said: “The systems are in place, the infrastructure is in place, you’ve got operators with a lot of good experience that could do these things quite quickly, but it’s just regulations that are holding us back.”

But the government had been far from idle, he said.

“Some of the stuff they’re working on with [drone] registration and operator competency, I expect they’ll come out with this year.”

Ministry of Transport manager of strategic policy and innovation Richard Cross

Ministry of Transport manager of strategic policy and innovation Richard Cross

Richard Cross, manager of strategic policy and innovation at the Ministry of Transport, said the ministry did not have specific plans to lead testing and trialing of medical deliveries. 

“Due to the success of other measures in response to Covid-19, New Zealand has not had the same immediate need for remotely-delivered medical supplies as in other countries. 

“However, deliveries of medical goods including blood and organ transplants is a key potential use case for drones in the future.

“The ministry generally supports innovative uses of drones.”

In late 2019, the ministry began stakeholder engagement on potential updates to drone regulations, the summary findings of which are expected soon. 

Cross said while none of the potential policy changes were aimed directly at facilitating emergency responses using drones, he believed updates could help facilitate drone integration.

Police superintendent John Rivers said in late March, police recognised the potential of using RPAS (remotely-piloted aircraft systems) during the pandemic, but any uses fell outside existing rules.

“To date, police RPASs have not been used for this purpose,” he said. 

Many would have privacy concerns with drones flying over their back gardens, and Fulcher said this was a key concern for legislators.

However, with a lot of phones now having higher definition cameras than commercial drones, the discussion around privacy in the digital age was far broader.

The country already has a good stock of experienced drone pilots, Fulcher said, with experience flying complex operations at high altitude.

X-craft CEO Philip Solaris

X-craft CEO Philip Solaris

Philip Solaris is one of these.

He is the chief executive of X-craft, an R&D company specialising in designing and building unmanned systems that have been used in emergency responses. 

Among other operations, X-craft conducted post-disaster damage assessments in Vanuatu following the category 5 Cyclone Pam.

In the past, X-craft has developed drones capable of dropping life preservers to those stranded at sea, and it is currently field testing an unmanned boat and aircraft capable of carrying medical supplies.

Solaris said the technology to move medicines around New Zealand already exists and could be deployed easily.

He said the main restrictions “are around airspace and safe airspace usages.

“It’s a matter of regulation, not technology.”

Solaris sits on a board that advises the UK government on the potential of drones, and he identified another use in emergencies: public communications.

“We can fly along and actually talk to people. We can also airdrop communications, like radios.

“In disaster response, one of the most important factors is communications, not only to find problems but to enable two-way communications.”

The Valkyrie VTOL drone developed by X-craft

Solaris said because New Zealand was a small market, drone operators and builders would need to be adaptable and make their products multi-use.

A drone that one day delivers medicine may need to be utilised by the coastguard on another day and the police on another.

“They need to have a segue, a pathway, towards development, not just being hemmed into a specific task or linked to a specific threat or event.”

By Ged Cann on NBR.co.nz

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