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Drones in NZ have their own traffic delays

Oleg Vornik asks where NZ's drone sector is at - and finds we won't be delivering pizza by drone on the regular any time soon. 

We all know New Zealand is a country of firsts. The first to grant women the right to vote, the first powered flight - and the first drone delivery in the world.

Back in late 2016, Domino’s secured a world-first pilot with their pizza delivery via drone, courtesy of Nevada-based company, Flirtey. Despite the initial flurry of excitement from pizza fans (and endorsement from then Transport Minister, Simon Bridges), we’ve not heard anything subsequently about plans to run more extensive trials or bring the service to market.

But there have been a number of exciting drone-based delivery plans and trials in the last couple of years internationally, which have required confidence and certainty from the relevant regulatory authorities.

Following Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to become an air carrier last April, Alphabet-owned drone delivery division, Wing, ran a pilot delivering packages for FedEx and Walgreens amongst 22,000 residents in Christiansburg, Virginia. Amazon and United Parcel Service (UPS) are due to run their own trials shortly too.

New York has also approved a pilot UTM (Unmanned Traffic Management) system, effectively creating a 50-mile drone flight corridor.

The strangest one, perhaps, has involved Sberbank (the Russian Government Bank) announcing trials of drones delivering stashes of cash.

With all of these recent developments overseas, and the appetite Kiwis seem to have had for similar types of innovations, are we about to see drones buzzing around our cities, delivering packages to little helipads and apartment windows?

Probably not.

The technology for all this arguably already exists in small drones, as far as waypoint navigation, obstacle detect-and-avoid, battery capacities, flight times and camera capabilities. Some challenges remain such as a universal UTM system to track the drones and a universal drone ID system - nothing technologically unsurmountable though.

However, regulators are wary about letting the genie out of the bottle and unleashing swarms of drones in the skies above our cities. There are bound to be incidents – some potentially very dangerous - like the toddler who was left blind in one eye following a strike in the face in the UK, five years ago.

There’s also the issue of noise pollution coupled with privacy invasion. For example, you never know who pilots a drone and what it’s looking at, and of course, there are all the terrorist applications, where it becomes much easier for a nefarious drone to blend into general drone traffic.

One plausible scenario could potentially see drones carrying an explosive, or even spraying the city with a biological or chemical substance. More worryingly, perhaps, is that the technology readily exists for such drones to be purchased on Amazon (built as agricultural/pesticide spraying drones) without any restrictions on buyers.

The current legislation remains quite strict globally (aside from the narrow exceptions mentioned previously), generally banning drones from any sort of populated areas, coupled with their proximity to airports.

Legislation also generally requires a one pilot to one drone ratio (to ensure close control of the drone), flying within line of sight (substantially constraining flight distance – a drone can’t generally be seen any more than 200-300m away with the naked eye) and no flights at night. However, these rules change from country to country, and what licence the drone pilot acquires.

It’s imperative that Kiwi regulations plan for a well-formed and widely-deployed infrastructure for in-the-city drone flights and no resulting tragedies. Broadly speaking, the Ministry of Transport and Government have said they are “committed to having a thriving and successful drone sector in this country”.

However, the leap of faith required from the Government (and the Civil Aviation Authority) is substantial and requires a lot of confidence. In fact, it’s arguably on par with the level of confidence that was needed to unleash the first cars on the roads – except unlike Henry Ford’s times, millions of drones already exist.

One possible exception is last mile delivery, where a drone lifts off the delivery truck on the street and delivers the package to the door, then flies 20 metres back to the truck.

So, in all honesty, it would appear your Domino’s pizza is likely to still be subjected to road traffic delays for some time to come.

Oleg Vornik is the CEO of DroneShield Limited (ASX:DRO), Australian based global leader in drone detection and mitigation products. Hear more from him and other industry disruptors in CMC Markets’ The Artful Trader podcast – Confidence Uncovered.

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