Drones and Future Transport
Future visions for drone transport
According to research by PricewaterhouseCoopers, the expanding use of drones in the commercial and public services sectors in the UK will deliver significant benefits for both the economy and society, delivering by 2030 a £42bn increase in GDP, a £16bn net cost saving to the economy, and 628,000 jobs in the drones economy. An estimated 76,000 drones will be operating in the UK’s airspace by 2030, of which 11,000 will be involved in transport and logistics.
In particular, the use of drones in medical logistics, with their ability to deliver life-saving supplies quickly, even in hard-to-reach locations, offers the ideal arena to act as a testbed for drone logistics operations in general.
For an overview of the role that drones could play in medical logistics in the NHS in the UK, please see here. The challenge over the next decade is to bring-about the convergence of technology and regulation necessary to realise the full potential offered by drones. This is where the research conducted in the E-Drone project aims to make a contribution to driving the agenda forwards.
Drones carrying cargos classified as dangerous goods
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.
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.