THE BLOG

Why A Drone Could Save Your Life

01/06/2017 10:29 BST | Updated 01/06/2017 10:29 BST

DRONE technology is moving a lot faster than most people thought possible - and will arrive in our cities even sooner than we can imagine. Perhaps one of the more fundamental changes happening right now is that people are beginning to understand what benefits drones bring for businesses.

A good example is hospital firms - many of whom have several facilities within the same region or city, and frequently need to transport diagnostic or blood samples from one to the other.

The speed and reliability of these deliveries is critical for the health of patients, leading to an 'Ah-ha!' moment for some of our clients. Ultimately, lives can be endangered if transfers don't take place as rapidly as possible. That's where our technology can play a role - conveying diagnostics samples or drugs more reliably and with less environmental impact than by road.

Since mid-March this year, the main hospital company in the Swiss canton of Ticino has been testing our vehicles to transport lab samples between two of their facilities in the city of Lugano. Following this successful first phase, we announced plans for the first regular service early next year. It will be the first ever commercial deployment of drones in an urban area, operated by our customer Swiss Post and fully approved by the country's aviation regulators, FOCA.

Delivering medical packages is a perfect task for drones. The payload is light and the speed of the transfer is crucially important - road transport being subject to hold-ups. Hospital staff load the sample in a safety box, place it under the drone, which is then launched with one touch of a smart phone app. Likewise, at the destination the box is autonomously released by the drone, and can be retrieved by another member of staff.

Each package will be carried by a highly manoeuvreable quadrocopter, which can carry a weight of up to two kilograms up to 20 kilometres at a top speed of 36 kilometres per hour (22 mph), flying autonomously along a pre-planned and authorised route before making a precision landing guided by infra-red sensors. In the highly unlikely event of multiple system failure, every drone has a parachute which is automatically released to bring it down safely.

The public acceptance of drones is the next big frontier that must be conquered. I'm convinced the way to create that acceptance is to expose people to the technology in a safe and friendly way, making sure that people are given answers to any questions they may have.

Personally, I'm sure people will accept (and even love) drones, just as they accepted all kinds of new technologies in the past, and will do so in the future too.

When the first cars started driving down the road, some people said: "What's going to happen to my chicken I keep on the road?" The fact is that new technologies transform the way we live in all kinds of ways, and people become used to them and want the advantages they bring. That has already been true for cars and for airplanes. Today, we see aircraft flying overhead all the time and none of us gives a thought to the very remote chance of a crash because the airlines industry and its regulators have built such a phenomenal, consistent record of safe operations.

Drone technologies too will be beneficial and will change certain aspects of life. They will bring many tangible benefits in terms of reliability, lower environmental impact, and costs. Every technology does entail certain risks, and it is up to the same aviation regulators to assess those risks and ensure that industry (including ourselves) have put into place and certified all appropriate measures.

Drones will fly below the airspace used by manned vehicles, which have a minimum of 300-400 metres, and at the same time well above any obstacles like buildings, electricity pylons and telephone wires on the ground. That's around 100-110 metres (320-360 ft) high, meaning they are practically inaudible.

People sometimes ask if our skies will be blackened out by the volume of drones flying back and forth? Of course not! Drones will be just one other mode of transport, beside all other existing modes of transport. They will find their place and they will become ubiquitous, but they will in fact be far less intrusive than alternative modes of last-mile transport.

They will help achieve 'on demand' delivery - something even the best logistics companies struggle with today - while alleviating congestion and serious environmental impacts on the cities of the future. This vision has inspired me since leaving my career as Chief Cargo Officer at Swiss Air Lines two years ago, and joining the drone logistics firm Matternet. We have already piloted delivering medical samples in Papua New Guinea on behalf of Doctors without Borders, in Bhutan for the World Health Organisation, and Malawi for UNICEF.

I believe drone transportation will become a big industry - but it will exist alongside other modes of transportation. It certainly feels like we are at the dawn of a new industry - and a new, exciting mode of transportation.

Oliver Evans was a guest speaker at the Takeda 'Blueprint for Success' summit in Geneva - bringing together experts from government, industry (healthcare and pharmaceutical), NGOs, foundations, academia, finance and the wider business world to explore how new partnerships and innovation can improve access to medicine for patients around the world.