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Countryside erupts over threat of drone deliveries

A Zipline drone delivers medical supplies at a hospital
Drone deliveries could ease road traffic and allow for more efficient public services, supporters say - Luke Dray/Getty Images

As the small plane is placed on a catapult-like ramp, its rotors start to whirr, generating a buzz somewhere between an electric razor and a swarm of bees.

An operator in a high-vis jacket checks the coast is clear and presses a big green button. The aircraft shoots up the ramp and into the skies, accelerating to a cruising speed of around 60 miles per hour.

After around 20 minutes it releases a small package containing medical supplies with a parachute attached. The delivery glides calmly to earth, hitting its target, while the aircraft powers back to home base.

This is the scene proposed over a 50-mile stretch of England, to the north and west of Newcastle. A trial of drone-based medical deliveries – a joint venture between the NHS, Silicon Valley drone company Zipline and logistics business Apian – was originally due to begin last September.

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As it stands, the skies are quiet. The group is still waiting for approval from the Civil Aviation Authority (CAA).

Apian, the company leading the efforts, has bowed to concerns from local airfields, hobbyist pilots and businesses in limiting the scope of its proposed trials, which are being funded by the NHS.

However, the plan has still generated considerable and vocal opposition. A local racecourse has raised concerns that wealthy patrons will not be able to arrive by helicopter while the trials are on. The Ministry of Defence has weighed in, warning that the trials could affect defensive tests at a nearby RAF base.

NHS liveried drone
Apian has faced opposition over its NHS drone delivery trials - Apian/PA Wire

The row is a potential preview of things to come. Amazon has said it will launch its first delivery services in the UK this year, reviving plans after abandoning tests in Cambridgeshire several years ago. Manna, an Irish start-up, is planning to do the same, while Wing, a subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, has been hiring staff in Britain.

Last week, the CAA said it was preparing for a broader introduction of drone deliveries, relaxing rules that require drones not to fly in the same airspace as other aircraft.

Proponents say drones will mean quicker deliveries, lighter road traffic and more efficient public services. Apian’s proposed trials in Northumbria, for example, are designed to deliver prescriptions from a central hub to more than 30 GP offices and other health facilities in the area, speeding up care.

Yet opponents claim drones are a wasteful, noisy and disruptive wheeze whose advantages are exaggerated.

The General Aviation Alliance, a group that represents airspace users ranging from skydivers to balloonists, called the Northumbria trial “expensive and pointless” in a submission to the CAA.

Microlight pilots said the drones needed to be fitted with collision avoidance technology, while airfields and local manufacturers claimed the plans would be detrimental to their operations.

Amazon had also generated significant local opposition when it tested drones on the outskirts of Cambridge, with local wildlife campaigners coming out against the trials. Despite a splashy announcement from Jeff Bezos in 2013 and a promotional video from Jeremy Clarkson, commercial deliveries never began.

Amazon drone
Amazon said its Prime Air service completed its first trial delivery in 2016 - Amazon

Louisa Smith, Apian’s chief aviation officer, describes the feedback as welcome and crucial. The company has delayed its trials to the second half of this year to accommodate changes to its plans.

It will now fly only at certain times of day, and has shrunk the area it plans to fly in so as not to prevent pilots from using a popular coastal corridor or to inconvenience small airfields.

Smith says regulations ultimately have to be updated so that drone trials do not disadvantage others. Currently, drones flying beyond an operator’s line of sight must do so in segregated airspace because protocols around collision avoidance are yet to be worked out.

The CAA changes announced last week are designed partly to address this.

Drones would be required to signpost where they are to other aircraft by adding high-intensity lights pointing upwards and broadcasting electronic beacons. That may only spark new rows: the General Aviation Alliance has said it is on board with changes, but only if the drone industry pays for them and it causes minimal disruption to pilots.

Bobby Healy, whose drone company Manna has delivered more than 100,000 takeaways and coffees in Ireland, says the UK is more challenging.

“It’s a busier airspace and there’s a lot of military there,” he says. Manna’s quadcopter drones typically fly lower and in more suburban areas than the proposed drones in Northumbria.

Even if these issues are worked out, the benefits of drones have been questioned. Academics at the Universities of Southampton and Bournemouth who studied an NHS drone trial between the Isle of Wight and the mainland claimed that the time savings were exaggerated and that the costs of drone deliveries were 133pc more expensive than using a taxi and hovercraft.

Supporters are not giving up, however. Apian is applying for permission to ferry medical tests between two hospitals in London and ultimately hopes to operate drones across the UK.

“There’s definitely a need for this,” says Smith. “There’s a huge number of use cases that it could benefit.”