COVID-19 has impacted everyone’s lives across the globe. Dubbed “The Great Accelerator,” the pandemic catalyzed rapid growth in many industries and boosted technological innovation. Satya Nadella, CEO of Microsoft, noted that the pandemic has brought about “two years of digital transformation in two months.”
The new normal has opened doors for innovators to find solutions to new pain-points -- think contactless payment methods, QR code menus and video conferencing. As society shifts towards remote work and social distancing, we at ModalAI are keeping our eyes on drones. With their unique ability to perform fast and contactless delivery and remote operation of mobile cameras, autonomous drones could be the next to take off as a result of this pandemic.
Delivery Drones to the Rescue
Drone delivery isn’t new, in fact, UberEats used our VOXLⓇ companion computer to power food delivery drones last fall. Now, the pandemic has heightened the urgency for access to medical tests and supplies, intensifying the need to put the right supplies in the right hands at the right time. This year, several U.S. companies have already employed drones to deliver COVID-related medical supplies. Last month, Walmart partnered with Quest Diagnostics to deliver self-collection kits to residents who lived within one mile of the participating stores. Similarly, Zipline, a U.S. based startup, deployed long range drones to collect and deliver COVID-19 test samples from remote locations to testing facilities in Africa. UPS joined forces with CVS Health Corporation to start a drone delivery program that will deliver prescription medicine from CVS pharmacies to The Villages in Florida, the largest retirement community in the U.S. Most notably, MissionGO deployed autonomous drones to pick up and deliver human kidneys to hospitals in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Monitoring From a Distance
Whether outdoor or indoor, remote operation of mobile cameras via autonomous drones will be advantageous in the coming years. Amid the pandemic, some companies have started testing how they can use autonomous drones to monitor the spread of COVID-19. Sergeant Tim Ehrenkaufer of Daytona Beach, Florida, used a drone equipped with FLIR’s thermal camera to monitor social distancing. Although the use of drone technology for COVID-related use cases is still new, drones with thermal cameras are already aiding first responders in search and rescue missions, as well as lifeguards by helping them find beach-goers in trouble.
Ready to Accelerate
Before The Great Accelerator, drones weren’t expected to take off for another two to five years, according to Gartner. These strange times, however, have helped accelerate the drone industry out of the trough. Investments in the industry, improving technology and the shifting geo-political winds amid the pandemic have helped drones take off. If anything, the global crisis has only served as a proof of concept for why we need drones now more than ever.
Earlier this year, the U.S. government issued the NDAA 2020 Section 848 which prohibits Department of Defense employees from procuring sUAS components, such as flight controllers, developed or manufactured in a covered foreign country, specifically China. This act has increased the demand for drones manufactured in the U.S. and serves as an attempt to re-secure the supply chain once heavily influenced by the U.S. and Europe, but since lost to China. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is doing its part in growing the U.S. drone industry by promptly developing flying regulations such as the Low Altitude and Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC), Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) and remote ID systems.
Major companies such as UPS, Amazon and Google have also shown interest in claiming a stake in the U.S. drone industry, as their drone subsidiaries were all awarded the Part 135 Standard certification during the pandemic. The FAA also proposed airworthiness criteria to define a path to type certification for 10 drone companies including 3D Robotics, Amazon and Zipline. The support of the U.S. government and major players have added momentum to the growth of the industry.
As drones garner more interest and more companies successfully innovate alongside new FAA regulations, we are sure to see more of this technology. I am thrilled to see how quickly the drone industry is growing, and I am optimistic about drones’ emerging role in helping us get through the pandemic.