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Richard Adams, Director of Swoop Aero Oceania, with a drone taking part in a demonstration flight at Leithfield Beach.
An international drone company is using Christchurch to test its concept for an urban delivery network – and will start delivering medical supplies by drone to the West Coast in the coming months.
Swoop Aero has partnered with the Christchurch NZ Urban Development Team to test a network including autonomous docking stations for a fleet of drones.
The company’s Oceania director, Richard Adams, said he planned to spend several months developing the concept before considering a physical operation.
Swoop Aero is already using drones to provide medical services in rural areas of the UK, Australia, Democratic Republic of Congo, Mozambique and Malawi, such as delivery of vaccines and Panadol, and collection pathological and blood samples.
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Drone footage captured in December 2020 reveals the condition of the quake-damaged interior of Christ Church Cathedral.
It has operated in some cities in Africa, but the Christchurch program will be the first time it has considered operating in a fully urban environment.
Operations in cities must consider hazards such as helicopters and international airports, as well as risks such as people and buildings.
“We have to research the best routes to fly. Is it directly above houses, following train tracks or highways? Adams said.
Christchurch was chosen because of its forward-looking urban design as the city rebuilt after the 2011 earthquake, allowing drones to be integrated into future planning rather than being an add-on to a network already established.
The drone concept plan for Christchurch is expected to be completed this year, and Swoop Aero, an Australian company, can then consider a timeline to bring the project to fruition.
It hopes to expand beyond medical supplies to potentially include courier packages, he said.
The company’s current drones weigh up to three kilograms, but a new model would be in service before the end of the year and could carry up to 5 kg.
By the time a drone delivery service could potentially become a reality in Christchurch, it could carry heavier loads, he said.
The west coast would likely be his first New Zealand base, with the transport of medical supplies between Greymouth and Westport starting in three or four months.
Adams is working with the West Coast District Health Board, Gray and Buller District Councils, on the project.
The company is seeking approval from the Civil Aviation Authority and will then engage with affected communities and airmen.
Privacy concerns are often raised, Adams said, but drones only have small, very low-resolution cameras to locate QR codes at destinations, and don’t record images when performing logistical work. .
Other versions of drones used for search and rescue work and mapping are equipped with cameras, he said.
Swoop Aero is working with the Ministry of Innovation and Enterprise and other drone operators on a program to bring unmanned aircraft into New Zealand airspace.
It is also part of the Tāwhaki project, a joint venture between the Crown and Kaitōrete Ltd, which owns 1,000 hectares of land on the Kaitōrete Spit near Christchurch.
The joint venture will develop aerospace research and development facilities at the site, including a possible launch facility.
Swoop Aero chief executive Eric Peck said the company’s goal is to provide accessible service to 100 million people by 2025.
Since 2017, it has performed more than 13,000 “beyond visual line of sight” flights, safely delivering more than 700,000 items worldwide.
In 2018, Swoop Aero became the first company in the world to delivering a vaccine via a commercial drone operation, in Vanuatu.
This project has helped increase childhood immunization rates across the country by providing access to remote island communities.
Cath Carter, chief executive of urban development at ChristchurchNZ, said the aerospace and transport sector of the future has a current global value of $360 billion.
It is estimated to be a $2.7 trillion industry by 2050.