Dubai: where it's good to be a drone

Unmanned aerial vehicles will take centre stage in the battle against Covid-19, and Dubai will be their theatre

Dubai drones disinfect city against Covid-19

Dubai drones disinfect city against Covid-19
Powered by automated translation

There is talk from practically every part of the globe over how the Covid-19 pandemic will accelerate trends we were seeing prior to this scourge: automation, remote work and telemedicine, to name a few, are all making leaps, condensing years of innovation and investment into the wild year that is 2020.

While it can be difficult to discern the signal from the noise, Dubai's announcement this week to establish a drone delivery network is a clear signal.

“If you came to me three months ago and said Dubai would have an airport network and ground control infrastructure for drones, I would have said five years from now, maybe," Rabih Bou Rashid, the founder of Dubai's Falcon Eye Drones Services, told me this week.

But the need for social distancing to reduce human interaction changed the script, he said, and now there is new urgency.

Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid visits Dubai Future Labs.

What if, for example, Dubai's Al Ras were ever to go into a full, localised quarantine? How would needed medicines and food be delivered to its inhabitants safely?

Drones are making deliveries with increasing regularity in rural areas all over the globe. Amazon is testing them in the UK and FedEx is doing so in the US state of Tennessee.

The big-ticket commercial contracts for drone companies in the region today are in monitoring industrial infrastructure, in places where it is straightforward to navigate and there aren't many people around.

But a municipal or national regulatory framework and the infrastructure to put those regulations to use in an urban environment – these would be unprecedented.

Dubai's Law No 04 of 2020 sets the precedent.

All drones use in Dubai had previously fallen under the UAE General Civil Aviation Authority (GCAA) regulations, as laid down in UAE Federal Resolution No 2 of 2015. The new drone law paves the way for the Dubai Department of Civil Aviation (DCAA) to implement its "Dubai Sky Dome" initiative, which aims to create a virtual airspace infrastructure and ecosystem for commercial drone use throughout the emirate, according to Carrington Malin, an independent technology consultant who is studying the implications of the new regulation.

Drones have provided us with the most vivid visuals of what it might be like to do battle with a pandemic in the future. The use of drones has been well documented, but the examples highlight how niche they still are. A show of 300 of the aircraft taking flight to thank healthcare workers in Seoul this week grabbed international headlines. Videos of unmanned aerial vehicles spraying streets in Dubai with disinfectant were forwarded ad nauseam over WhatsApp during the sanitisation campaign.

I point these out not to discourage the pluck, but drones today could not live up to what we would need them to do in a worst-case scenario. Regulation and infrastructure simply aren’t ready. This week, Dubai took a brave step to change that.

That the announcement came the same week that Dubai reopened to international tourists is particularly poetic.

If a worst-case scenario is that drones are deployed to deliver emergency pharmaceuticals and sustenance to people in the crosshairs of a pandemic, I can think of a million-and-one best cases – many of them indulgent, but surely profitable. Imagine a drone setting off from Dubai Mall, carrying a bauble from Cartier or Rolex, and making its way to a delighted guest at the Burj Al Arab.

Or think of our primal attraction to the Dubai Fountain – with its 16 million visitors a year. What about the addition of choreographed drone displays among the tallest tower and biggest fountain?

Out of the gate, Dubai has said it aims to attract logistics and e-commerce companies to its Mohammed Bin Rashid Aerospace Hub under its new laws. There they can work out how to transport and deliver packages safely using drones in an urban environment, one that is still being built and so has the flexibility to add the infrastructure that will one day be needed.

The director of public policy at Chinese drone-maker DJI for the EMEA region, Christian Struwe, told me that – from his experience of having worked closely with government entities in Dubai – safety will come first.

"At a time in which every corner of the globe is looking at the drone applications of tomorrow, it is important to strike a balance that will allow us to be forward looking and ambitious, without hindering on the use of drones we see today," he said. If regulations are too strict, they will run the risk of impeding industry innovation.

There is a small amount of relief in the fact that we are experiencing a pandemic like this one now, in 2020, as opposed to the 1990s. Our expertise and technical prowess across industries have given us some advantages over this terrifying novel coronavirus. But we were by no means prepared as a planet, and most of our greatest technologies to overcome Covid-19 are still in their infancy. Applications for more fully realised artificial intelligence, 3D printing and automation could all one day deploy inoculation at a rate we cannot even fathom today. Regulation and infrastructure for drones to deliver that treatment to areas at scale would also be useful. We are not there yet and there is plenty more work to be done.

Mr Bou Rashid, the Falcon Eye founder, says that to start, packages will not weigh much more than 2 kilograms. As a policy, his company's drones avoid jobs that require flying over people. For now, he says it is just not safe. He sees that rapidly changing as Dubai becomes an R&D hub for urban drones.

Mark his words, the first pilotless flying taxi service – not test flight – will carry passengers from Jumeirah. It will soar over water to land at the Burj Al Arab. And it will do it much sooner than we had imagined only a week ago.

Kelsey Warner is the Future Editor at The National