Drones and future transport
The UK Government is exploring the potential to integrate drones into logistics. The UKRI's Future Flight Vision and Roadmap sets out a strategic vision for the Future Flight in the UK for 2030. Demonstrations projects or trials represent “critical waypoints” in 2024 towards achieving longer term aspirations for more everyday drone delivery services by 2030.
Trials of drone services which focus on supporting medical logistics are ongoing and the E-Drone research project has used the medical use-case to develop the evidence base around energy use, risk implications and operational requirements.
The UKRI’s Roadmap does not represent detailed transport policy on why, where and how often drones might be used in logistics, this is yet to be determined and the E-Drone project has been exploring the issues with stakeholders.
Drones carrying cargos classified as dangerous goods
Drone trials have included the movement of cytotoxic medicines used in the treatment of cancer
This short animation provides a general introduction to the use of drones in logistics.
UAV Traffic Management
The UAV Traffic Management (UTM) concept is being developed worldwide (including in the UK) as the mechanism by which drone operations can be integrated safely and efficiently into shared airspace alongside traditional, crewed aviation operations.
Broadly, the concept involves designated blocks of low-level airspace (e.g. corridor(s) of airspace), managed by UTM service providers, in which all traffic is coordinated, drone operators and other airspace users are aware of each other’s locations, and conflict detection and resolution is provided.
UTM is seen as a key step in enabling the routine Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight (BVLOS) operations necessary to realise the full potential of commercial drone operations. Technological solutions (e.g. drone tracking systems, electronic conspicuity systems, detect-and-avoid systems) to enable the implementation of UTM in practice are currently the subjects of research and development.
As part of their use in the logistics sector, drones may be required to carry cargos that include substances classified (by the United Nations) as Dangerous Goods (DG). This is a particular issue for medical logistics where certain medicines or biological substances could be classified as DG (e.g. cytotoxic medicines or patient diagnostic samples).
The safe carriage of DG by air is ensured through the publication of a set of DG regulations by the International Civil Aviation Organization (ICAO), known as the Technical Instructions for the Safe Transport of Dangerous Goods by Air (ICAO Doc 9284), with which all aviation operators must comply. However, because drone logistics is a new and emerging area of aviation, the DG regulations have developed exclusively from the perspective of their application to crewed aircraft, particularly the large, fixed-wing aeroplanes of the type typically used to transport the vast majority of airfreight. Consequently, carriage of DG by drones is a new area in terms of regulation and governance, and it is unclear how the current DG regulations should apply. This under-researched is being investigated as part of the E-Drone project. See here for a recent publication.
Logistics drones would be operated by remote pilots