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Knives are out for “Drones for Good?”

A sur­pris­ing and unex­pect­ed fea­ture appeared on the BBC web­site this week. Deliv­ery drones that trans­port health­care prod­ucts, par­tic­u­lar­ly those that car­ry live-sav­ing human blood sam­ples and body parts, have always been well-received and accept­ed by both the pub­lic and media. Com­pared to deliv­er­ing piz­zas, cof­fees and Chi­nese take­aways, a drone for good is ele­vat­ed to the nth degree. So to read a fea­ture actu­al­ly crit­i­cis­ing this high­ly spe­cial­ist mar­ket, espe­cial­ly from the BBC, is some­what a sur­prise.

Under the head­line ‘Northum­ber­land NHS drone tri­al mas­sive air­space grab’, the arti­cle harks back to news that first broke in Feb­ru­ary. A col­lab­o­ra­tion between the UK Med­ical drone start­up, Api­an Aero and Northum­bria Health­care NHS Foun­da­tion Trust, to explore the deploy­ment of Unmanned Aer­i­al Vehi­cles (UAVs) to car­ry chemother­a­py drugs, blood sam­ples and oth­er items between hos­pi­tals. Sure­ly, this is the ulti­mate ‘Drones for Good’ prac­tice? How can you crit­i­cise such a human­i­tar­i­an endeav­our?

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The BBC claims, “Flight restric­tions to allow drones to trans­port sup­plies between hos­pi­tals is a mas­sive air­space grab that will ground oth­er air­craft.” The fea­ture explains that Api­an secured a tem­po­rary dan­ger area (TDA) air­space clo­sure for a drone tri­al between Feb­ru­ary and May and is apply­ing for it to con­tin­ue. Yet oppo­nents say it extends far wider and high­er than nec­es­sary.

Pilots and airstrip own­ers say the TDA effec­tive­ly clos­es two grass airstrips in Northum­ber­land which are used by light air­craft, micro­light asso­ci­a­tions and his­toric air­craft. An oper­a­tor of the Stan­ton air­field near Mor­peth, for exam­ple, who asked not to be named, said it would cause a “sub­stan­tial loss of income” to his fam­i­ly’s farm.

This oper­a­tor com­ments, “It’s a small farm, it has to diver­si­fy to sur­vive, and that’s one of our main sources of diver­si­fi­ca­tion. The whole thing is a mas­sive air­space grab and is obvi­ous­ly going to affect a lot of pilots and put our airstrip out of action.”

Stan­ton Air­field

In response, Api­an said it was involved in a “for­mal engage­ment process on air­space changes” and no deci­sion had been made. A com­pa­ny spokesper­son said it want­ed to “engage with as many indi­vid­u­als and groups as pos­si­ble to  hear the feed­back and take it on board wher­ev­er we can.”

Cer­tain­ly, crit­ics have a sol­id argu­ment. Pilots say the TDA blocks air tran­sit from north to south and from the east of the coun­try to the coast. They point out forc­ing his­toric air­craft or micro­light users to fly over the sea to avoid the TDA is unsafe.

These crit­ics also state, Api­an has applied for this TDA to extend to 600ft above ground lev­el, above the tallest known fea­ture, which in parts of the Tyne Val­ley would reach up to 2,000ft push­ing out oth­er air­space users. Yet, the com­pa­ny points out that drones can safe­ly fly at low alti­tude along a nar­row cor­ri­dor, so stop­ping oth­er air­craft fly­ing entire­ly is not nec­es­sary. 

Api­an com­ments it is “work­ing in col­lab­o­ra­tion with the CAA to sup­port the devel­op­ment of inte­grat­ed air­space that allows safe, equi­table use for all air­space users” while say­ing it is “not our inten­tion to close airstrips” and hoped to find a solu­tion to allow both oper­a­tions to “safe­ly co-exist”.

Yet, the crit­i­cism doesn’t end there. 

The affect­ed local fly­ing com­mu­ni­ty has also com­plained that Api­an was award­ed more than UKP799,000 of pub­lic mon­ey to run the tri­al. They argue the lim­i­ta­tions of drones mean oth­er car­bon neu­tral options are bet­ter val­ue for mon­ey and point out NHS sup­ply trans­port on the ground still had to run dur­ing the ear­li­er test.

Inno­vate UK, which over­sees SBRI Health­care and who award­ed the mon­ey, said it was aimed at help­ing “improve patient care and save mon­ey while also mak­ing the NHS green­er”. A spokesper­son com­ment­ed fund­ing deci­sions were made via “a rig­or­ous process.”

The High­ly Con­tro­ver­sial “Mas­sive Air­space Grab” Area

The oper­a­tor of the Stan­ton airstrip then, per­haps, goes a step too far after point­ing out a com­mu­ni­ty con­cern that Api­an “could use the tri­al as proof of con­cept with­out spend­ing its own mon­ey and then sell the ser­vice to com­mer­cial oper­a­tions like Ama­zon.”

The prob­lem being Ama­zon and its pre­vi­ous­ly much vaunt­ed deliv­ery drone promise has col­lapsed in a heap of humil­i­a­tion, with some com­men­ta­tors sug­gest­ing the com­pa­ny may nev­er get its ten year-old vision off the ground.

In response, Api­an said it did not own or oper­ate the drones but was a “health­care logis­tics com­pa­ny attempt­ing to prove that on-demand deliv­ery improves patient health out­comes and staff well­be­ing”. The com­pa­ny, which was found­ed by for­mer NHS doc­tors, was “born from the NHS and focused on the NHS”.

In the past, there was, per­haps a rather cyn­i­cal view, that for the pub­lic to accept drone deliv­ery, first it should be used for human­i­tar­i­an pur­pose. This might gen­tly per­suade them to accept and embrace oth­er ser­vices. From blood sam­ples and kid­ney organs to Hawai­ian piz­za and Lat­te may seem a cyn­i­cal approach, but even drones for good have a break­ing point as this sto­ry sug­gests. It doesn’t mat­ter how human­i­tar­i­an a drone deliv­ery ser­vice may be, a bal­ance between pub­lic con­cerns and sav­ing a life should be found.

The crit­ics argue they are not “opposed to drones in gen­er­al”, but believe NHS usage will only be viable when tech­nol­o­gy exists to allow them to oper­ate along­side oth­er air­craft with­out the need to block off large areas of air­space. They make a valid point.

The UK Civ­il Avi­a­tion Author­i­ty, who will decide whether to approve Apian’s lat­est TDA, said it “did not com­ment on spe­cif­ic air­space change pro­pos­als.”

(News Source: www.bbc.co.uk)

(Top image: Sky­ports)

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