Is it time for a reality check when it comes to drones and service? Mark Glover speaks to Robert Garbett from the UK Drone Delivery Group who says mid-mile delivery might be possible but we're a long way from Amazon delivering from above.
Think drones and you probably think of small, multi-rotor objects, when in fact according to the International Organisational Standardization’s (ISO) definition, it’s actually, “Any unmanned system that is autonomously or remotely controlled.”
So this could include: any ground vehicle, any air vehicle, any boat, any ship, any surface sub-sea system, any space system; in fact any hybridization of the above which is remotely controlled or does not have a pilot sitting on board is technically a drone.
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“The image you’ve got in your mind is so wrong. It’s definitely not just a small, flying thing,” says Robert Garbett, the author of that ISO definition and a drone industry expert who’s explaining to me how the technology goes far beyond what we see buzzing in the air. “Once you re-approach the whole topic from that perspective, it opens it out into a far more expansive, exciting and beneficial product. A tiny, remotely controlled spider-shaped air drone really can’t do very much on it’s own but as part of an integrated system with autonomous control, it becomes much more powerful.”
However, drones were airbound in the early 90s, used extensively and effectively for the first time in the Gulf War. In the Spring of 1991, an article appeared in Airpower Journal, penned by Captain P.Tice of the US Air Force. His piece, Unmanned Aerial Vehicles: The Force Multiplier of the 1990s, centered around the dwindling number of army personnel and how Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) - or drones – could effectively plug the gap.
In the piece Captain Tice said: “When used, UAVs should generally perform missions charecterised by the three Ds: dull, dirty and dangerous.” Now, this was written in the context of military operations: long-term endurance missions that could last several days (dull); the detection of chemical agents (dirty); and reconnaissance behind enemy lines (dangerous), so their use in this instance is very different to delivering an Amazon package, or the delivery of a spare part, but ultimately its purpose is to remove the human from a process.
One could argue service is going in the same direction. The human influence is becoming less as self-diagnosing assets, remote technology and big data gradually impede on an engineer’s role. Will drone assistance be part of their eventual demise?
There’s still some way to go before we see autonomous robots donning overalls and popping round to fix your boiler, but in other sectors such as the airport industry, the influence of drones is already being felt and, according to Garbett, has further potential.“The service sector in the airport system is huge and a lot of it can be done via autonomous systems or remotely controlled systems: Baggage handling for example,” he says. “The technology could eliminate the need for human beings to be airside increasing security and the efficiency of baggage handling. It could also eliminate the health and safety risks associated with human beings throwing bags around all day.”
"In 1865 a spluttering, noisy vehicle with four wheels was an alien…as…well…a drone in 2020..."
Garbett is Chief Executive of Drone Major Group, a specialist consultancy advising on the application of drone technology working with customers who want an independent and expert guidance on what is possible, where to procure what they need and how to implement it safely and effectively. In 2018, he founded the UK Drone Delivery Group where over 300 members seek to lobby the UK Government in establishing a clear path to a UK-wide commercial drone industry.
Last month the group published a white paper (currently out for consultation) calling for the creation of long term drone testing areas, a significant step that could speed up the process of acceptance. He does however acknowledge the process is a long one, an evolution almost, referencing regulation in the automotive industry as a blueprint. “Right from the start, you could do what you wanted [when driving] because there were no regulations. Then the regulations started to come in, the first one meant you had to get out of your car at a junction, wave a red flag as you crossed just in case you killed a horse…” He pauses for a moment, “I believe that happened because one horse was killed which is a great example of over regulation.”
I laughed at this. It sounded ridiculous but online investigation revealed 1865 Locomotive Act enforcing a top speed of two miles per hour when passing through towns. The regulation was passed to protect horse and cart, the primary form of travel at the time, where motorists, according to the legislation were expected to “carry a red flag constantly displayed, and shall warn riders and drivers of horses of the approach of locomotives, and shall signal the driver thereof when it shall be necessary to stop, and shall assist horses, and carriages drawn by horses, passing the same”.
It seems ridiculous now, but Garbett’s comparison is a salient one. In 1865 a spluttering, noisy vehicle with four wheels was an alien…as…well…a drone in 2020. In both contexts however, concerns are fueled around safety, taking well over 100 years of further regulation and development before driving became even remotely safe, or less dangerous.
Yet as recently as the 1970s deaths at the wheel were still remarkably high, it took another layer of robust regulation, primarily around seatbelt use to make a dent in the grim statistics. In terms of an evolution, 100 years is more than enough time for change to happen.Is this the approach then for drone commercial use in the UK? In the group’s white paper the scattering of drone testing areas are cited as ‘sandboxes’, although Garbett prefers Technical Evolution Areas static areas that, he says aren’t really there to purely test. “They’re there to take a thing from concept to operational deployment and beyond,” he explains, “and through that learning curve, and to accelerate that learning curve upwards so we really can get the benefit that we currently get from cars. So you link the technology areas and link them across the country and start in safe areas first.”
"We are going to turn this into a technology evolution. Somewhere in the UK where we are starting to deliver parcels, mid-mile, depot to sub-depot.”
The press release accompanying the white paper cited a Barclays’ report valuing the drone market close to $40 billion by 2023 so perhaps its evolution will be quicker if these figures transpire, although the driver lies not in B2C delivery (the idea that Amazon Drones will be dropping parcels from the sky is, according to Garbett feasible but a long way away, “There’s no way you’re going to have sufficient infrastructure and the depth of availability of airspace and the durability of batteries to have a small air drone delivering things to my balcony.”) but in terms of service and logistics, value lies not in last mile delivery but the mid-mile to depots, where the final leg of the journey to the warehouse or factory could take be fulfilled by an autonomous vehicle that trundles into the building carrying the spare part.
Garbett’s knowledge in this area is refreshing and it’s good to hear clarity on a topic that’s been shrouded in mystery, perhaps skewed by Amazon’s glimpse into their own drone programme, and perceived – wrongly – as that “small, tiny flying object”. But what about a watertight use-case for the technology’s commercially? How far away are we from that?
Garbett eludes to a project he’s working on around mid-mile in delivery and logistics. Run in tandem with a company he’s unable to mention the study has entered – encouragingly - into the feasibility stage. “We are going to turn this into a technology evolution,” he enthuses, “somewhere in the UK where we are starting to deliver parcels, mid-mile, depot to sub-depot – live and commercially.”
And the next step? I ask? What we need are companies like your audience to come forward and get involved. The benefits are there, the technology is there and the will from Government to make this happen is also now there...what we need now is forward thinking companies or trail blazers to come forward so that we can assist them to realise the future.
Over to you then reader and remember, please try to keep that ISO definition in mind. There’s more here than a buzzing spider thing.