Drones have been in the public eye for many years now. Still, the COVID-19 pandemic, which has flipped virtually every industry on its head and accelerated the rate of digital disruption globally, is also changing how we as a society perceive the use of this technology. Since the pandemic began, we have seen the use of drones take on a more vital role within emergency response efforts, serving as a helpful tool in getting to especially hard-to-reach areas and providing much-needed assistance during this period of physical and social distancing.
What has this looked like? Drones have supported a range of critical efforts to keep people safe amid the pandemic, from spraying disinfectants from above in public areas, like arenas, to tracking crowds to ensure authorities can maintain a group of people at the right size and distance apart.
In North America particularly, these efforts have taken new heights, with drones in some cases helping to serve communities in need by delivering crucial medical aid and test kits to minimize interaction between groups of people and act as an extension to existing medical infrastructure.
But, these efforts only scratch the surface of what the future holds for drones. As we hopefully near the end of the COVID-19 crisis, drone delivery has already made enough of an impact that it will continue to develop to assist with any future outbreaks for this pandemic and better serve our communities for emergency response and mission-critical efforts across the board.
Whether efficiently shipping prescriptions from pharmacies to people’s homes, collecting samples for drop off at labs, providing medical equipment and devices to remote people in need, shuttling blood from blood banks to hospitals, or working with all levels of the health system, cellular-connected drones can address many of the challenges and opportunities facing the sector today and into the future.
Lessons Learned From COVID-19
Work on drone technology at the height of the pandemic to support the delivery of medical supplies and COVID-19 tests to the people of Penelakut Island, a First Nations community in Canada, and the use of drones over the last year-plus overall has taught the industry a few critical lessons. Among them is educating the community.
As drone delivery in emergency response situations is often most helpful and critical to more rural, remote or isolated communities, especially in the case of delivering essential supplies for something such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the impact of the technology is more than just having these materials delivered in a fraction of time, but also in providing a physical link for these groups of people with important resources outside of the community.
Drones can break barriers, bring people and communities closer and close the digital divide, but people cannot benefit from this technology without accepting it into their community and buying into the idea of what drones can do for them. Bringing the community in early into the process, informing them of what is being done, how this would work, and how they would benefit, was critical for work in the First Nations community. And in some cases, these groups of people are not always just end users; some individuals can and should be brought in as operators of the technology, so they too can play a role in these efforts.
One of the First Nations community pilots that InDro recently trained put it best: “We are used to connecting over the internet but now from my keyboard I can set up a flight, walk to the drone and place an item into the cargo hold and have it arrive minutes later in the other community. It’s like teleporting it over. Welcome to Star Trek.”
For future drone efforts, regardless of the situation or circumstance, having this buy-in from local communities, and getting them on board with the idea of using the technology, will be critical for success, whether using drones for emergency response or simply dropping off retail deliveries.
Outside of the value of working closely with communities, there were other important considerations, specifically centered around the technology, that made it all possible – particularly connectivity. “The pandemic highlighted the role that beyond-line-of-sight, cellular-connected drones play in helping remote communities get access to critical big-city services,” said Todd Krautkremer, chief marketing officer (CMO) at Cradlepoint. “However, the behind-the-scenes technology needed to make this happen is considerable. It takes payload-capable drones with advanced control and navigation software, a compact IoT gateway that provides a secure and reliable drone-to-ground cellular connection — this is where Cradlepoint comes in — and a robust and intelligent cellular network.”
Flying Forward with 5G
When it comes to connectivity, the future is especially looking bright for drones, with 5G networks providing the path for drone technology to truly deliver on the promise that it holds. This next-generation network can empower the transfer of more data at near-zero latency, enable a drone to increasingly benefit and take advantage of artificial intelligence (AI) applications that live on the cloud, and increase autonomy and overall usefulness.
Imagine, for example, a drone that monitors the weather. After a storm, it launches itself to check communities for down powerlines. It then relays the information in real time, along with images, to local first responders who can spring into action.
Or picture drones being able to communicate with other technologies, like smart devices in cars or on roads, that signal to drones when an accident or incident occurs and triggering the drone to go to the scene to give first-responders a first look, or perhaps to even bring important equipment or supplies.
With 5G, these ideas, which may seem like science fiction, are becoming a reality.
“While the advantages of 5G may not be obvious to the casual consumer that is served well by today’s advanced LTE networks, it delivers many compelling advantages to business use cases, including drones,” Krautkremer said. “The combination of higher bandwidth, lower latency and better battery consumption correlates to delivering more immersive and responsive drone navigation using real-time video and data and enabling drones to travel farther with more payload capability. All of these 5G-enabled capabilities are crucial to extending the role drones can play in improving the lives, health, and welfare of communities everywhere.”
A Drone-Supported Future
As shown by the COVID-19 pandemic, the sky is the limit for how we can use drones for important efforts like emergency response. And, while cellular networks are already providing the necessary foundation for innovative drone use, the potential only grows as 5G networks continue to expand and become a reliable source of connectivity.
As the waves of 5G technology continue to roll out on cellular networks over the next couple of years, the drones will follow from larger cities to rural areas, helping to close the digital divide and deliver new services to communities everywhere.
As drone technology evolves and becomes more common, it will shift from simply being a “nice to have,” to a “must-have” and an essential service for connecting us all in new ways, not just digitally, but physically.
Philip Reece is the CEO and founder of InDro Robotics Canada. He serves on the board of directors for Unmanned Systems Canada and Flyy Professional Drone Alliance, is founding member of Canadian Advanced Air Mobility (CAAM) and on the Transport Canada CanaDAC rulemaking committee. In addition to InDro Robotics, Reece is also the chief technology officer (CTO) for Bravo Zulu Drone detection and counter measures, responsible for all of the company’s technical developments worldwide. Prior to founding InDro Robotics, Reece was CEO and accountable executive of an airline carrying more than 30,000 passengers a year with a fleet of five aircraft. This was Philip’s sixth successful start-up across industries including oil and gas, offshore, and control and instrumentation with projects internationally.