Coronavirus Gives Urgency to Israel’s National Drone Delivery Project

Project organizers say drones will reduce traffic in major cities, but implementation and profitability could prove to be difficult

Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen
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Demonstration of a Flytrex drone.
Demonstration of a Flytrex drone.Credit: Flytrex
Sagi Cohen
Sagi Cohen

Delivery drones that can transport packages quickly and without a driver are an idea that technology companies have been trying to advance for the past few years – Amazon, Google, Uber and a list of startups, including Israeli startups. The field has been gaining momentum but has also run into doubts regarding finances, regulation, safety and privacy.

Now a new initiative titled Naama, a Hebrew acronym for city air transport, is seeking to open Israel’s skies to commercial drone deliveries. The initiative aims to create operational and regulatory frameworks that would enable drone companies to offer deliveries of small packages, such as food and medicine. Over the longer term, the goal is to regulate low flight paths in Israel, in preparation for people using light aircraft for urban transport, or “air taxis.”

Naama was founded by the Ayalon Highway company in partnership with the Transportation Ministry, Israel Aviation Authority and Innovation Authority. At the beginning of the year authorities published a request for information from companies in the industry, with the goal of starting pilot programs and experiments within a year.

“The idea is to conduct experiments and to understand how to manage commercial drone space for all kind of package transport, from weights of up to 3.5 kilograms up to 120 kilometers,” said Elizach Dembinski, vice president for strategy at Ayalon Highway. “We want to formalize this industry: create regulation, guidelines, safety parameters for drones before they’re given operating permits, define flight paths, and create a control center including all the companies with drones in the air.”

One of the goals is easing traffic in major cities, says Dembinski. “Many of the motorcycles and the vehicles on the road are there only in order to transport packages of up to three kilograms from place to place,” he says.

The initiative has sparked significant interest in the drone sector as well as among international companies, and received dozens of inquiries from companies including Wing, one of the world’s leading drone delivery companies, which was founded within Google. The company has submitted an initial proposal and is looking into participating in a future Israeli pilot project.

The coronavirus outbreak completely changed the plans for the initiative. The process is being expedited with a quick tender, with the goal of advancing initial pilot projects for medical deliveries that relate to coronavirus, such as transporting diagnostic test samples quickly. The winners of a recent tender are BWR, Kronos, Aerodrome, Simplex, Percepto, CopterPix, Gadfin and Zipline – all Israeli companies, aside from the U.S.-based Zipline.

Zipline is the largest, most experienced company, operating long-range drones that drop packages at their destinations. Zipline is already transporting blood samples and medications in Africa, and recently unveiled the service in the United States. The company has carried out 44,000 deliveries to date.

The hope is that the tender winners partner with health authorities to begin medical transports of blood samples, medications and equipment, among others, within medical institutions or for people in home quarantine. To this end, it has partnered with HealthIL, an initiative of the Innovation Authority, Economy Ministry and Digital Israel charged with integrating new technology into the medical system. HealthIL works to create partnerships with hospitals and other medical institutions.

Five medical institutions are preparing the institute’s drone trials; the most advanced one is at the Dorot Geriatric Medical Center in Netanya. Last week, Kronos and Flytrex were chosen to operate the Dorot pilot project, and they’re expected to start transporting medications, blood samples and other bodily fluids among different buildings at Dorot, and to hospitals and laboratories in the area. However, professionals say that cash shortages will make it hard to implement this service, particularly for hospitals in financial crisis.

A Zipline delivery drone releases its payload midair during a flight demonstration at an undisclosed location in the San Francisco Bay Area, California, U.S., May 5, 2016. Credit: REUTERS/Stephen Lam

‘Flight bubbles’

The coronavirus crisis provides an immediate opportunity for a proof of concept, but Naama is looking ahead to transporting consumer goods such as food, shoes and gadgets. It is seeking to form “flight bubbles” in different regions of the country in coordination with the Israel Air Force, spaces where drone flight experiments can take place, and set takeoff and landing points.

One such location under consideration is a three-kilometer radius centered on the Shuk Tsafon food market in north Tel Aviv’s Ramat Hahayal neighborhood, which could enable food deliveries from restaurants to homes in the area, primarily single-family homes, to enable package delivery.

Israel is more open to the option of drone deliveries nowadays. Aside from the government initiative, aKronos and Flytrex launched a pilot in April called Drone2Door, aimed at enabling deliveries from convenience stores to front yards. The companies started enlisting participants for the experiment, but it is on hold until Flytrex can import its new drones to Israel.

The field is gaining momentum around the world. The U.S. Federal Aviation Administration has started regulating the field. Wing, which has operations in Finland, the United States and Australia, announced a jump in demand due to the coronavirus. Uber launched a food delivery pilot with restaurants in San Diego. Amazon has been working on its service Prime Air for years, and UPS is offering pharmacy deliveries within the United States. Other companies, big and small, are conducting drone delivery trials around the world.

And yet questions remain. Beyond the issue of technology – can drones collect, navigate and deliver packages reliably, safely and precisely – there remain questions about the economic viability of the service, as well as issues of safety, privacy and regulations.

Residents receive a drone home delivery of essential household and medical supplies in the village of Moneygall, following the coronavirus outbreak, in Ireland, May 8, 2020.Credit: REUTERS/Jason Cairnduff

For instance, why would city residents prefer to receive their food via drone if a traditional delivery arrives within 30 minutes? In little Israel, where most people live in apartment buildings, the question is particularly relevant. And there’s also the weight limit - typically up to three kilograms.

Meanwhile, everyone is trying to find the application where drones have a clear advantage over ground deliveries. In Israel, industry players believe this advantage might lie in packages with high value or particular urgency, which could justify drone transport even if it’s more expensive. For instance, transporting blood samples, organs for transplant or medication during rush hour in the heavily trafficked greater Tel Aviv region.

That said, players believe that once the service is well established, the marginal cost of a drone delivery will be very low – just charging the drone between deliveries.

Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash states, “Drone delivery is faster, cheaper and more ecological compared to vehicle or motorcycle transport.” BWR Head of Operations Ohad Boaz adds, “With more use and experience, prices will decrease, more services will be offered and economic utility will increase.”

Another barrier is the fear of drones crashing in the street. “A drone that crashes into a building will shatter into pieces, unlike a scooter on the street all day, endangering the driver and his surroundings,” says Bash. “People still think of delivery drones as toys with a tendency to crash. You need to think of them as small aircraft - and remember that at this very moment, there might be a 500-ton Boeing airplane flying over your head.”

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