By David Shimer
Two years after Amazon completed its first delivery by commercial drone, the idea of routinely using unmanned devices to drop off items at front doors remains a distant, if not far-fetched, dream. The recent shutdown of London’s Gatwick Airport, caused by sightings of drones near the runway, underscored the risks and complexities of the efforts.
But as e-commerce continues to grow, drones have the potential to reduce the time, cost and energy needed for many everyday deliveries — assuming they are managed well and used safely. Before a commercial drone industry can thrive, particularly in the crowded urban areas of Europe, different kinds of drones must be able to fly along their delivery routes without crashing into one another — and under a standardized set of regulations, experts say — not unlike cars on the road.
The path to proving that drones can operate together and be tracked in crowded skies has brought a group of companies to a former military airfield outside Brussels, where they will test their unmanned aviation technology. The project, known as SAFIR, will help European authorities devise a set of rules for the commercial use of drones.
Among the largest companies taking part is Amazon Prime Air, the retailing giant’s drone unit. In December 2016, Amazon demonstrated how it might use drones when it documented the airborne delivery of a TV streaming device and a bag of popcorn to a customer in Cambridgeshire, England. Lately, the company has been developing an unmanned traffic management system — essentially, an air-traffic control system for drones. But Amazon’s ambitions are just one part of the SAFIR initiative.
“It is about testing 10 drones with different purposes, applications and IT systems,” said Mark Vanlook, chief executive of DronePort, the recently opened facility where the tests will take place.
The companies in the project fulfill a range of needs and purposes. Unifly, an aviation software company developing drone management systems, recently raised 14.6 million euros (about $16.7 million) from investors. Another company, Helicus, focuses on medical transport by drone, promising quicker delivery of critical medicine to hospitals. Both startups are based in Belgium. Other participants produce drones that can assist law enforcement, inspect power lines and monitor wildlife. The overall goal, Vanlook said, is making sure different drone systems can coexist while in flight. “If drones can’t account for their surroundings, they will collide — and hurt people,” he said.
The SAFIR project is happening at a transitional moment for the European Union’s commercial drone industry. The European Parliament and Council just expanded the bloc’s regulatory authority to include all civil drones, and the European Commission is completing a harmonized set of rules for drone use. The Gatwick shutdown, which affected the travel plans of more than 140,000 people days before the Christmas holiday, “opened our eyes” to the importance of the European Commission’s regulatory work, Vanlook said, and the need for innovative solutions to drone traffic management. As an example, he pointed to Aveillant, a company in SAFIR based in Cambridge, England, that markets holographic radar technology designed to detect drone activity around airports, national borders and other critical areas.
“The technology to build a single drone obviously exists, and now we are playing catch-up with registration, tracking and rule making, all things that will prevent chaotic, ad hoc incidents like the one at Gatwick,” said Ellen Malfliet, an official from Unifly.
The commercial drone industry, while filled with unsolved hurdles and challenges, has attracted the attention of policymakers largely because of its economic potential. China is the world’s largest manufacturer of commercial drones, while the United States is seeking to hasten the development of its own market. President Donald Trump recently expanded opportunities for drone testing over populations, at night and beyond the line of sight. Major technology companies other than Amazon are devoting resources to the industry, such as Wing, a unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, which has been testing drone deliveries outside Canberra, Australia.
To keep up, the European Commission is helping to finance projects like SAFIR. Analysts say the commercial drone industry could produce more than 100,000 jobs within the European bloc by 2050. Countries in Europe have already embarked on their own experiments with unmanned aviation, from fast-food deliveries in Iceland to those of critical medicine in Switzerland. By regulating all civil drones, European authorities hope to create a uniform system that brings with it major investment, said Enrique Navarro, a professor and lawyer in Spain who specializes in aviation.
“The market is Chinese-dominated right now,” said Ulrike Franke, a policy fellow focused on drones at the European Council on Foreign Relations. “And if Europe wants to catch up, it first has to unify its rules and regulations, which will incentivize European drone producers to engage not just with their country but the entire European market.”
Members of SAFIR met in Brussels at the end of November for planning. In the coming year, the group will test products together at DronePort, which provides users with office space and outdoor testing areas, as well as a long runway, a control tower and hangars. They are also planning a live demonstration over Antwerp, Belgium, provided that they pass a series of safety and certification tests, said Robin Garrity, an air-traffic management specialist helping to oversee the project. Participants say the live demonstration, if successful, will send a signal to businesses and consumers alike that a vibrant commercial drone industry is achievable.
“Right now, we are at the cusp of an industry that is completely changing, with tons of opportunities,” Malfliet said. “It is vital to collaborate, to work together and move as quickly and as far as possible.”