Martin Warner is a tech entrepreneur and CEO of Autonomous Flight and Parcel Fly.
Commercial drones will soon become a common sight in the skies above our homes, every bit as ubiquitous as the delivery vans currently clogging our streets.
The Civil Aviation Authority has, for the first time, approved the remote piloting of drones, marking a significant change in the way the technology is regulated. Until now, drones in the UK have had to be flown within a pilot’s visual range, which is typically up to 1,600ft, and remain away from built-up areas at a maximum altitude of 400ft to avoid collisions with aircraft.
Ten trials will take place this year, the first of them at altitudes below 150ft, to gather data on the safe operation of remote drones and assess the risks involved. A private technology company will carry out aerial inspections of infrastructure projects and help fire and rescue crews to provide a rapid response capability.
Meanwhile, in Oranmore, on the west coast of Ireland, drones are already being used to make household deliveries, taking off from the roof of the town’s Tesco supermarket. They travel at about 50mph and deliver items within an average three minutes. The company involved, Manna, has raised £18m and plans to launch services in suburban UK towns with populations of 50,000-100,000 people. They anticipate having 40,000-50,000 drones in operation, supplying around one tenth of the UK market.
Drones will revolutionise the way we consume goods and the way that companies such as Amazon and Walmart do business. Amazon and Google have both acquired proprietary drone companies and Amazon estimates that over the next 15 years drones could save the business up to $500bn.
Amazon has been working on its drone delivery service since 2013 and within a few years envisages being able to fly packages weighing up to 5lb to a radius of 15 miles. To put that into context, around 85 per cent of its global products weigh less than 7lbs and could be delivered by parcel drones. Consumers living in cities can expect to receive parcels in just 30 minutes.
The benefits are huge, both in reducing carbon footprint – drones will be powered by lithium-ion batteries and we will see fewer lorries on the roads – and in the wider economic opportunities the technology will create. Drones will be used not only for consumer package delivery, business express parcel and medical delivery, but also by the emergency services and even to help police our cities.
The ability to push services into low altitude virgin air space at below 2000ft will see a myriad of new flight-based innovations in the coming years, but the speed of adoption will present challenges too. An average large city could see 2,000 drones operating in the airspace of a metropolitan area. They will be barely recognisable in flight and virtually noiseless, only producing light noise when they deliver to gardens or central hubs in business districts, so will be less disruptive than you might imagine.
However, the airspace immediately above our towns and cities will need to be controlled to avoid a free-for-all that leads to chaos. I have been thinking about this problem for several years, and, having published more than 120 patents and led businesses in a variety of technology sectors, I am confident we can find a solution if we get the approach right from the outset.
I am developing an enterprise logistics platform that will enable retailers, logistics companies, national governments and aid organisations to deliver goods by air. In simple terms, it is an air traffic control system for sub-2000ft airspace. My company, Parcel Fly, has successfully completed flight simulations and proved the concept.
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The beauty of it is that we are creating a software solution that can be designed city by city, cloning itself. Ultimately, my vision is for it to be used across 700 cities around the world, controlling 1.4m drones in airspace above metropolitan areas.
If this all sounds a bit fantastical, think again. We are not talking about a futuristic concept – this is innovation that we will be experiencing within the next decade, not just drones but also battery powered eVTOL (electric Vertical, Take-Off and Landing) aircraft carrying passengers above our cities. Technological advances will spawn a new industry, which Morgan Stanley has valued at around $1.5 trillion by 2040 and which has already attracted more than $2bn capital investment globally.
My company, Autonomous Flight, has successfully developed the YGS Plus, a six-seater eVTOL aircraft and, in the coming years, we will see point-to-point passenger routes in major cities. Ultimately, they will take passengers from airports and suburban areas to city hubs, with seven or eight routes initially operating over a city the size of London and carrying up to 1m passengers.
They will cost little more than an Uber whilst reducing carbon footprint, cutting congestion and speeding up consumer travel. Every major city in the world will adopt this mode of transportation – what we used to see in sci-fi movies is coming sooner than you might think and we need to think now about how we police this virgin airspace effectively.