‘This will all begin to scale across Europe from 2023 onwards’: Food delivery by drone prepares for take-off after UK watchdog approval

By Oliver Morrison contact

- Last updated on GMT

Getty/PhonlamaiPhoto
Getty/PhonlamaiPhoto

Related tags: Technology & Automation, Technology, Amazon

The drone industry is celebrating after the UK Civil Aviation Authority (CAA) approved trials to test the remote piloting of drones.

The move allows a UK-based start-up called sees.ai to trial a concept for routine ‘beyond visual line of sight’ (BVLOS) operations at three sites without needing to pre-authorise each trip.

The flights will need to be under 150ft and will initially require an observer to remain in visual line of sight with the aircraft and be able to communicate with the remote pilot if necessary.

The CAA said that the move “fires the starting gun for the next phase of growth of the drone industry, during which the potential of BVLOS to significantly increase operational effectiveness and efficiency will be considered”.​ It said further use of BVLOS flights would be considered to “significantly increase operational effectiveness and efficiency”.​ It added that data gathered from these test flights will be used to consider the success of the operations and whether the risk and hazard assessments can be used to cover generic risks beyond the three trial sites.

While the trial is essentially aiming to show that the new technology can allow drones to fly safely alongside other airspace users, it is believed that the concept, if proven by the trials, could be replicated for other BVLOS drone flying to carry, among things, food deliveries. The opening up of food deliveries by drone would require further safety considerations, however.

The CEO of sees.ai, John McKenna, described the approval for trials as a “significant milestone” and added: “We are accelerating towards a future where drones fly autonomously at scale – high up alongside manned aviation and low down inside our industrial sites, suburbs and cities. Securing this UK-first permission is a major step on this journey which will deliver big benefits to society across public health & safety, efficiency and environmental impact.”

David Tait, Head of Innovation at the UK Civil Aviation Authority, said: “Our innovation team was set up to meet the rapid pace of technological advances in the UK, so to see businesses like sees.ai thriving and creating world-leading solutions that will benefit infrastructure and markets is really exciting.”

Bobby Healy, CEO and founder of Manna, the start-up trialling Ireland’s first grocery home shopping drone deliveries in partnership with Tesco​, said approval in the UK opened up the possibility of food deliveries by drone across Europe as a whole.

He told FoodNavigator: “Clearly the CAA are looking to up the pace of innovation in the UK market by enabling limited BVLOS trials. This is the start of the journey that will culminate in ubiquitous use of drones for routine tasks like delivery of food, grocery etc. Our estimation is that – and congruent with EASA timelines, this will all begin to scale across Europe from 2023 onwards.”

Up, up and away

The sees.ai trials in the UK are being supported by funding from UK government and private investment. Sees.ai has already won a share of a £30 million government funding pot to revolutionise flight operations in the UK.

Paul Misener, the vice-president of global public policy at Amazon, which has been working on its drone delivery service since 2013 and which reckons it will be able to fly packages weighing up to 5lb as far as 15 miles in the coming year -- said Britain was “a leader in enabling drone innovation”.​ 

Unilever is preparing drones to deliver products to more customers faster

The sees.ai trials will be operated by Japanese drone service provider Terra Drone, which last year joined forces with Unilever to explore drone delivery services for its Ben & Jerry’s ice cream brand in New York. At the time of this project, Unilever said that with regulations around future drone flights expected to become more flexible, it was preparing for a drone logistics service that would deliver products to more customers faster.

Yuki Ueno, Director of Terra Drone Europe, said: “We want to solve serious problems in the logistics field, such as carbon dioxide emissions, with drones. As deregulation progresses worldwide, drone delivery services will also increase.” 

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