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Drone Delivery Systems Can Aid Coronavirus Relief

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by Patrick J. Paul

As COVID-19 continues its spread across the U.S. and globe and governments react with historic aid measures, social distance and stay at home orders, it seems opportunities for accelerated drone deployment to help with the COVID-19 spread in the U.S. may be missed.  Drones can reduce human involvement in the supply chain and hospital overcrowding by making it more practical for non-urgent patients to receive care closer to home via blood and medical supply delivery to local healthcare clinics.

Millions of Americans today learn and work from home and are likely to do so for at least the next several weeks, perhaps longer. This may leave some asking, what better time than to alleviate regulatory pressures on drone usage and to test its viability in communities in need, if only for a limited trial period?  Increasingly, the media is also focused on drone use in the COVID-19 crisis as this April 5, 2020 story on Good Morning America demonstrates.

No longer novel across much of the world, unmanned aerial systems (UAS) or drones nevertheless remain sort of Jetson-esque in much the U.S.  Drones are subject to the regulatory authority of the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) which has been deliberate, some would say too much so, in its approach to UAS regulation.  On March 31, 2020, the FAA, however, acknowledged  that drones are the fastest growing segment of aviation, further stating that “drones enable people to go places and do things that might otherwise be dangerous, and they often save money and time.”  FAA Fact Sheet

Touting the success of its UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP), the FAA noted that the IPP has successfully brought state, local, and tribal governments together with private sector entities to accelerate safe drone integration.  The overarching goal of the IPP is to help the U.S. Department of Transportation and the FAA develop new rules and guidance that support complex low-altitude operations.

Many in the private sector however are frustrated that such rules and guidance have been too slow in coming.  UPS Flight Forward, Amazon, and others are eager to prove the efficacy of their drone delivery technology in the U.S.  San Francisco-based Zipline, founded in 2014, lays claim to the world’s fastest and most reliable delivery drone, and the world’s largest autonomous logistics network.  It is fully engaged in drone use in Africa to provide medical assistance and supplies.

With so many Americans now at home, demand for air travel at historic lows, insurance carriers refunding premiums to car owners acknowledging the reduction in travel and accidents, it may be an opportune moment to fast-track, if only on a temporary basis, drone delivery systems in the U.S.  The IRS has extended tax deadlines, while a bevy of other federal, state, and regulatory agencies have announced a relaxation of compliance, enforcement, and/or certification requirements.  Perhaps the time is also right for the FAA to do the same, so that Americans can better appreciate the pros and cons of drone deployment.