The novel coronavirus has disrupted both the world’s economy and how we individually live and work.  With so many people being asked to stay at home and limit social interaction to fight the spread of the disease, could one result be the accelerated introduction of autonomy?  In particular, could we see more rapid adoption of UAVs and autonomous ground vehicles to deliver things like dinner, groceries and medications? 

Even before the current crisis, UAVs were already being used to deliver blood and medical supplies in Africa, and pilot programs were testing package delivery in the U.S. and Australia. Recently, to try and control the spread of coronavirus, local police in Europe (Spain, Italy, UK) and Asia (S. Korea) have been using UAVs to tell people on the streets to return home. UAVs are also being used to disinfect public spaces.  While there has always been some concern about the potentially problematic uses of UAVs by government agencies (from a privacy and civil liberties perspective), the COVID-19 crisis may mark a turning point in how people see them, perhaps becoming more accepting of UAVs as a normal part of life, even if the current circumstances are anything but normal.

That said, there are regulatory as well as technical challenges to any rapid, widespread rollout of
UAV fleets. The FAA has been working to define a management plan for the future of the national airspace – including regulations for the increased use of UAVs – for several years. Given the current crisis, perhaps it’s time to consider implementing immediate – even if temporary – rules that allow for greater UAV usage under an emergency proviso. This wouldn’t be unprecedented. The US Food and Drug Administration (FDA), for instance, has temporarily modified its rules to accelerate the search for new tests and drugs to fight the coronavirus. Could we see the similar action from the FAA to allow UAV flights in our neighborhoods?    

Doing this would not only limit the number of delivery drivers who must still venture out into neighborhoods, in urban areas wider use of unmanned delivery vehicles could limit the need for people to leave their homes in order to shop. Here in my hometown of Seattle, for example, I see a constant stream of vehicles making package and food deliveries and many people are still going to grocery stores and pharmacies.  Wouldn’t it be better to minimize the risk of human transmission of the infection by having UAVs make deliveries? 

With the testing done outside and within the U.S., it should be possible to develop a plan for UAVs to make deliveries safely, whether directly to homes or other designated landing spots (for instance, the unused parking lots at now-closed schools). While there are risks to the wider use of UAVs, at this point there should be sufficient data available on the success of delivery by air from current programs to move forward.  One example of a successful program is by the Alphabet subsidiary Wings in Christiansburg, Virginia. Consumers can order snacks, medicine and other items and have them delivered by drone to their back yards.

Ground-based autonomous systems could also help in the current crisis. Starship Technologies, a robotic food delivery service, is celebrating two years of commercial operation in the UK and Germany and has begun to expand into the US.  With fewer people on the roads and sidewalks, it will be much easier for unmanned ground delivery vehicles to move and become part of the landscape as they make their deliveries.

Even if expanded use of autonomous air and ground vehicles doesn’t occur now, it is likely when the next event occurs researchers will have found additional uses for them.  For instance, with improved sensor technology, UAVs could be used to detect people with fevers to help limit the spread of a virus. 

These are challenging times for all of us and we need to consider creative ways to apply technologies such as UAVs to help ease the spread of infection and also provide necessary services. While acknowledging the legitimate concerns over safety and privacy, this could be an opportunity to test the proposition that autonomous vehicles can provide people with the services they need and want. 

Paul Kostek

Paul Kostek

Advisory Systems Engineer

Paul is an Advisory Systems Engineer with Base 2 Solutions in Bellevue Washington. He has worked in a variety of fields such as aerospace, defense, medical devices and e-commerce. He is Experienced in requirements, architecture, risk management, interface definition, verification and project planning.