LAS VEGAS (KTNV) — The novel coronavirus has changed the way we do almost everything, and some drone experts say the idea of contactless deliveries is ushering in a new era for drones and their use amid efforts to slow the spread of COVID-19.
Health experts continue to preach that social distancing, that is, staying away from others as much as possible, is the most effective way to stop the spread of COVID-19.
"I can see Nevada being positioned among the top states in the country," said Mike Richards, CEO of Drone America.
Richards says the Silver State is ready to take off with drones.
Recently, the company performed a "Live City" test in which an unmanned aerial system was successfully flown from the top floor of the City of Reno's parking garage to a designated spot next to the Truckee River.
Richards says the demonstration showed federal regulators and even the international community how drones can navigate among buildings, vehicles, people and other manned aircraft.
Poland President Andrejz Duda was among the dignitaries on hand for the demonstration.
Richards says the COVID-19 crisis showcases how drones can help in the fight against the virus.
"The only barriers that remain are both technological and regulatory, and both the [Federal Aviation Administration] and technology are moving forward by leaps and bounds," said Richards. "And the FAA is primilarly focused on safety."
Richards says drones can be used to deliver almost anything from packages to medical supplies.
"Emergency medical supplies for a hospital, or a remote village, that are particularly cut off or restricted from going outdoors, that is something where drones are exceedingly useful,"he said.
Richards points to a safety drill in 2018 near Lake Tahoe which involved more than a dozen agencies.
A drone was used to fly urgent medical supplies to an injured firefighter in steep terrain.
By ground, the trip could have taken more than 20 minutes, but by air the injured firefighter had the supplies in under 7 minutes.
"The aircraft is capable of being a flying Swiss Army Knife," said Richards.
"They can carry sensors or payloads, you can carry medical supplies and cameras," he added.
Richards says the biggest barriers for wide scale drone operations in the United States are regulations and the operational cost per hour and per mile.
More companies, such as UPS, are developing drone programs, but experts say for drones to be cost feasible they must be able to fly beyond the sight of the pilot operator.
That distance is typically farther than 3 miles and the FAA requires stringent certifications for drone pilots, another costly and time consuming barrier.
"It may seem to be a slow path but it is a safe path and we believe that the infrastructure that the FAA provides is a good means to take this technology forward," said Richards.
Michael Zahra, the CEO of Drone Delivery Canada, says COVID-19 is getting the idea of deliveries by drones off the ground.
"It has raised the profile of our company and the industry in general," said Zahra.
The pandemic has put a sense of urgency among industries and regulators, according to Zahra.
"As the regulator evolves and this pandemic pushes the regulator, a little faster that what would happen normally, they want to, for a lack of a better term, loosen up the restrictions, especially where it's a medical application that is pandemic related, so they are being flexible in those kinds of instances," explained Zahra.
Experts say a growing drone industry could help offset job losses in traditional aviation.
"Because of all the commercial industry cutbacks, as far as aviation is concerned, aerospace engineers that are working to build aircraft can find a home within companies like ours that are hopefully going to grow beyond this pandemic," explained Mike Richards.
UPS has the first FAA certified drone airline which means they can fly out of an operator's line of sight with appropriate approvals, over people, with cargo and at night.
The company says they are working to expand the program across the country.