Could the coronavirus pandemic catapult delivery drones into the mainstream in the UAE?

The potential of drones to solve big problems is demonstrated every year by the UAE’s “Drones For Good” award, where Dh1 million prize money is given for humanitarian innovation.

But the machines are still a rare sight in most cities, and most of the pioneering work has been done in sparsely-populated areas. Drones have been used to deliver blood to regional hospitals in remote parts of Rwanda since 2016, and the outbreak of Covid-19 has seen similar schemes used in urban environments.

The World Economic Forum recently reported of a hospital in the Zhejiang Province of China, where drone company Antwork joined forces with the country’s Civil Aviation Administration to fly medical equipment between the hospital and the local testing centre. Drones cut transit time in half.

Plane manufacturer Airbus has been using them in Singapore to whisk items to ships moored offshore. German start-up Wingcopter is working with UPS to develop drones that can fly packages at speeds of up to 240km/h across distances of 120km.

Wing, part of the Google empire, made its first commercial drone delivery to a US doorstep in January, and those trials continue. In many countries, including the UK, it’s illegal to fly a drone out of the line of sight of the pilot, which hampers development of services. But the UAE, while having one of the strictest safety laws, is better positioned than most to benefit from drone innovation

How drones could work in the UAE

The relatively small size of the UAE also makes it easier to keep track of the number of drones in the air, but larger nations have struggled to deal with this logistical challenge. Across the globe, work has been under way to create unmanned traffic management systems – UTMs – to establish a drone equivalent of air traffic control, which will allow drones to fly safely and legally.

This is critical if drones are ever to be able to perform deliveries at scale – along with solving the problem of where they land.


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