11 February 2014, 11:04

Eye in the sky: UAE mulls use of delivery, traffic monitoring drones

Eye in the sky: UAE mulls use of delivery, traffic monitoring drones

Just imagine - one day your mail could be dropped at your doorstep by a machine. The United Arab Emirates is planning to use drones to deliver government documents to residents, and to monitor road traffic.

The initiative is considered the first of its kind and officials say it will help the government respond faster to residents' needs. The move comes as part of a drive to improve the efficiency of government services.

"We want to reach people before they reach us," said UAE Prime Minister Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid in a statement, adding that flying drones will be delivering official documents such as driving licenses to UAE citizens "within a year."

The battery-powered test drone is about 18 inches wide, colored white and stamped with a UAE flag, it is propelled by four rotors and contains a compartment on top to store a package.

The drones will use Google ( GOOG, Fortune 500 ) maps to identify addresses and fingerprint recognition technology to confirm a recipient's identity to protect the cargo from unauthorised recipients. They're also expected to have technology allowing a remote pilot to track and control the device in real time.

"Within a year from now we will understand the capabilities of the system and what sort of services, and how far we can deliver. Eventually a new product will be launched across all the country," Cabinet Affairs Minister Mohammed al Gergawi said.

The announcement was made in Dubai at the Virtual Future Exhibition conference, where a prototype was displayed in front of UAE Prime Minister and the ruler of Dubai, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum.

The UAE and Dubai, its largest city, are known for innovative showmanship and a love of gadgets.

Local engineer Abdulrahman Alserkal, who designed the project, confirmed eye-recognition and fingerprint technology would be used.

Proposals for miniature drones have run into difficulties elsewhere, because of conflict with civilian air regulations. Dubai, the home of the world's tallest building, also suffers a similar problem to that of urban deliveries in high density areas of the US, such as Manhattan.

However, aircraft in the US, including miniature drones, must have either line-of-sight control from an operator or sense-and-avoid automatic control which most small drones currently lack.

Earlier, US online retailer Amazon announced a prototype delivery drone but aviation experts dismissed the claim that it would be operational any time soon.

Proposals for the use of drones to deliver packages were put forward in December by Amazon, while Deutsche Post DHL told CNBC it had its own drones too. Amazon, the world's largest online retailer, was testing unmanned drones to deliver goods to customers, according to its Chief Executive Jeff Bezos.

The drones, called Octocopters, could deliver packages weighing up to 2.3kg to customers within 30 minutes of them placing the order, he said. The service was to be called Prime Air and comes as Amazon is looking to improve its efficiency to boost growth.

Amazon also posted a video on its website showing a drone picking up a package from one of its warehouses and delivering it to the doorstep of a customer's house.

But the use of unmanned vehicles for delivery by Amazon was slammed, with critics citing security and logistical concerns. Experts believe the UAE will have similar issues.

"Are the systems that they would be introducing going to be reliable enough not to fall out of the sky?" Paul Schulte, senior visiting fellow at King's College London, told CNBC in a phone interview.

One can see that it might work away from the main cities if you were trying to arrange deliveries out in small villages in the desert. The problems would occur when you had a higher concentration of delivery mechanisms in an urban center."

The FAA has been reviewing commercial drones since 2009, but it has not yet given them the thumbs up so it could take up to five years for the service to start.

The US Federal Aviation Administration is yet to approve the use of unmanned drones for civilian purposes.

The FAA has already approved the use of drones for police and government agencies, issuing about 1,400 permits over the past several years.

Civilian air space is expected to be opened up to all kinds of drones in the US by 2015 and in Europe by 2016.

Existing regulations are in place to minimise the risk of injury to people on the ground, said Dr Darren Ansell, an expert on unmanned aerial vehicles (UAV) from the University of Central Lancashire.

"The UAVs do not currently have the awareness of their environment to be able to avoid flying into people. To deliver goods to people's homes for example in residential areas, the UAVs must overfly densely populated towns and cities, something that today's regulations prevent.

"Other things to consider are security of the goods during the transit. With no one to guard them the aircraft and package could be captured and stolen," he said.

The FAA was "actively working on rules for unmanned aerial vehicles", the company said, adding that it hoped the green light would be given as early as 2015.

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