The first stage of responding to the coronavirus pandemic has been focussed on understanding the virus and how best to contain it, but as new hospital admissions slowly start to stabilise and advances begin to be made in the testing and – hopefully – treatment of the virus, the focus will inevitably shift towards the nation’s distribution networks and their readiness to roll out medical supplies to meet what will be an unprecedented level of demand.
The challenges of social distancing have already changed the way we expect ‘last metre’ delivery to take place, with the nation quickly adapting to the notion of mysterious packages being left on doorsteps by an ever-increasing army of delivery drivers. Perhaps a similar leap of faith will lead to the adoption of new technologies in respect of our ‘last mile’ logistics.
Drone technology was being trialled for the transportation of medical supplies in Switzerland as long ago as 2017 and in recent weeks, Transport Secretary Grant Shapps has announced the acceleration of existing plans to create a drone supply network between Southampton and St Mary’s Hospital on the Isle of Wight. These plans are designed to address logistical difficulties on the island, which have been exacerbated by the on-going COVID-19 crisis. Personal protective equipment is being shipped during the initial phase of testing with a view to using these drones to make vital deliveries of blood and organs in the future.
The use of drone technology to make deliveries as opposed to traditional, more labour intensive, logistical solutions complements the on-going need for social distancing, as well as reducing the reliance on road networks, which could become busier again in the weeks and months to come as employees return to work by car, due to concerns over the safety of public transport.
The last few years have seen a large increase in the amount of rooftop real estate being acquired across London and other major cities for potential use as hubs for commercial drone services, which will become attractive as and when aviation regulations begin to permit the widespread use of commercial drones in the (previously) busy airspace above our heads. If the unique medical and logistical demands posed by the COVID-19 outbreak lead the Government to accelerate their review of the regulatory framework in this area, even more landlords might find themselves looking upwards to re-appraise the value of their currently underutilised rooftop spaces.
The UK will trial using drones to deliver urgent medical supplies and equipment as part of the fight against COVID-19.