COVID-19 is Here. Now, Where are the Drones? [Guest Op-Ed]

From Zipline

If the current pandemic has created “a moment” for unmanned technology, where are all the drones?  It’s not that simple, say humanitarians.

The following is a guest post co-authored by Olivier Defawe, Director of the VillageReach Drones for Health Program, and David Sarley, Innovation and Supply Chain Director at the Gates Foundation.  DRONELIFE is honored to publish this original op-ed: DRONELIFE neither accepts nor makes any payment for guest posts.

The headlines are everywhere—there is a game changer in the fight against COVID-19. Drones are on their way to deliver samples and airdrop personal protective equipment (PPE), and are even flying overhead to enforce stay-at-home orders and social distancing. With all the hype, you would think drones are as ubiquitous as birds in the sky.

COVID-19 is also pushing governments all over the world to think differently about the health care system and many are writing the playbook as they go. It is a medical emergency of epic proportions— one that requires resilient supply chains to deliver critically needed supplies, but at the same time minimizing human contact. It seems like now would be the perfect moment for drone delivery to take flight. Yet scaled medical drone delivery examples remain few and far between.

The truth is that drones for medical delivery depend on long-term investments in systems that needed to start years before this pandemic. So what can we learn?

Taking flight isn’t as simple as ready-set-go

At the most basic level, drone integration into the health system requires the buy-in and commitment of government agencies. Without this, even the most rudimentary of operations cannot take off. Critical to operations is the identification of reliable and affordable drones; this requires vetting manufacturers and developing relationships to ensure the best partnership right from the start. From obtaining regulatory approvals to fly beyond visual line of site, to setting flight paths, and identifying qualified pilots to operate the drones – all this needs to happen long before a drone can take flight. At minimum, it can take months to build and launch a drone operation from scratch, and this is if all of the pieces fall into place quickly.

Currently, there are less than a dozen companies globally that have cargo drones that can reliably carry the payloads over distances needed for medical delivery.  With air, ship and freight services disrupted and borders closed to international travel, it

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