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How close is the UK to using delivery drones?

Trials have begun to allow flights out of their pilots’ line of sight for the first time

We are regularly told that delivery drones will soon be flying packages straight to our doorstep. While that technology is still some way off, it did move one step closer this week after the UK’s aviation regulator announced new trials it says “fires the starting gun for the next phase of growth of the drone industry”.

The Civil Aviation Authority has allowed a Sussex-based drone company to begin operating regular flights beyond the pilot’s line of sight, “using only cameras and sensors to guide their aircraft”, reports the Financial Times

Currently, drones are banned from flying beyond the line of sight of their pilots “under almost all circumstances”, reports the paper. This has caused difficulties in rolling out technology “at scale” for logistical tasks such as inspecting infrastructure or flying deliveries in urban areas.

The start-up, Sees.ai, will be able to fly drones in three nominated sites without needing prior authorisation for each flight. The flights will have a maximum height of 150ft, and will initially require an observer to remain in the visual line of sight with the aircraft and communicate with the remote pilot if necessary, explains TechCrunch.

The chief executive of Sees.ai, John McKenna, linked the trials to the gradual adoption of driverless cars, “which have been trialled on public roads in the UK but still have people in ultimate control in case the technology fails”, the tech site says. 

Several key hurdles remain in the commercial roll-out of delivery drones, warn regulators, such as ensuring drones are able to detect and avoid other objects in the sky, and the management of “drone traffic”, to ensure there are no collisions. 

“I think shipping Amazon packages or delivering pizzas is coming, but still a long way off. Here in the UK I think we have a high quality of life and high privacy expectations,” said McKenna. 

In 2019, the US aviation authorities gave approval for Wing, the drone delivery unit of Google’s parent company, Alphabet, to use drones to deliver packages commercially, reports The New York Times, although with restrictions to the height the drones can fly and the time of day. 

During the pandemic, some Wing drones were used to deliver key supplies such as toilet paper, baby food and medicines, to rural areas in the US, reports Cnet.

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