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Israel launches 2-year pilot, preparing the sky for network of delivery drones

Demonstrating the ability to fly multiple drones in a single airspace, Israel hopes to become a playground for local and foreign startups to test technologies and set up rules

Shoshanna Solomon is The Times of Israel's Startups and Business reporter

Drones flying near the city of Hadera on March 17, 2021, in a pilot run by the Israel Innovation Authority with partners and startups to create a network of drone deliveries in Israel (Courtesy)
Drones flying near the city of Hadera on March 17, 2021, in a pilot run by the Israel Innovation Authority with partners and startups to create a network of drone deliveries in Israel (Courtesy)

In a field in the forest near the northern city of Hadera, flags were blowing in the wind on a sunny day last week, with a gaggle of people — regulators, drone techies and journalists — waiting to observe a demonstration of drones flying together safely in a shared airspace.

The show, the first of its kind in Israel and one of the first globally, is part of a two-year pilot project after which Israel hopes to see drones safely whizzing around its skies delivering everything from medicine to hamburgers to clothes.

But to get to that scenario — a national network of drone deliveries — regulation is needed and officials must learn what needs to be done to prevent accidents, injuries and privacy intrusions. The pilot project aims to help stakeholders understand what our skies will look like in the future as hundreds and thousands of drones pepper our firmament to fulfill various needs.

“This is one of the most progressive experiments in the world, in which drones from many companies are flying in an open and not controlled area,” said Daniella Partem, head of the Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution at the Israel Innovation Authority, which is in charge of fostering the nation’s tech ecosystem.

The pilot, which will see hundreds of drones from a variety of firms test out their technologies in different sections of the new “playground” in the air over the next two years, was set up by the Innovation Authority together with Transportation Ministry, the Israel Aviation Authority, the Ayalon Highways Co. and the Prime Minister’s Office.

Over the course of the project, the unmanned vehicles from a variety of firms will make 300 flights a day in the designated area, first in over unpopulated spaces in Hadera and then gradually moving to fly over urban areas, each vehicle simulating the execution of a variety of increasingly complex tasks: food delivery, transport of medicine and medical equipment, agricultural services.

One control room in Haifa, run by Ayalon Highways, will be monitoring all of the unmanned vehicles’ flights in the pilot project. On Wednesday, the control room monitored 20 drones, making sure no emergency intervention was needed, using software developed by Airwayz Drones Ltd. Eventually, the pilot project will have hundreds of drones monitored by the control room, organizers said, with software developed by competing firms. The drones will weigh from 250 grams (0.55 pounds) to 25 kilograms (55 pounds) and will fly at an altitude of up to 120 meters, carrying loads of up to 2.5 kilograms (5.5 pounds).

Drones flying in a forest near the city of Hadera on March 17, 2012, in a pilot run by the Israel Innovation Authority with partners and startups to create a network of drone deliveries in Israel (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

The hope is for international drone firms to use the site as a testing ground for their technologies as well, said the Innovation Authority’s Partem.

As part of the demonstration held on Wednesday, with eight drones in the air, Alon Abelson, the CEO of the startup High-Lander, loaded one of the vehicles with a box under its belly containing a delivery of hamburgers and French fries, freshly cooked in a food truck belonging to Agadir Burger, a burger chain with which the startup is running a pilot for the Hadera area.

The food order was intended for a Hadera customer, said Abelson, and an otherwise 15-minute delivery time by car would take about 2.5 minutes by drone.

Alon Abelson, the CEO of the startup High-Lander, loading one of the drones with piping hot hamburgers and chips, from in a food truck Agadir Burger, a burger chain; March 17, 2021 (Shoshanna Solomon/Times of Israel)

At Wednesday’s demonstration, however, the food run was basically for show, as the vehicle just hovered over the area in tandem with the other drones, and then landed – to enable press photographers to take their shots, the organizers explained.

High-Lander, together with Cando, is also working with Pizza Hut to make deliveries in the area of Caesarea, Abelson said.

Similarly, Simplex is in talks with a large online retailer to manage a fleet of drones that will deliver goods ordered online to customers in a pilot that Shay Levy, the CEO, hopes will start in Tel Aviv this year. The company is in talks with the Tel Aviv municipality to set up pillar-shaped boxes in key locations around the city, to allow the drones to drop their packages inside so they can be picked up by the customers.

Since March 2020, the Israel C4IR Center at the Israel Innovation Authority, in cooperation with the Transportation Ministry (through the Ayalon Highways Company) and the Civil Aviation Authority of Israel, and a number of other entities, have been working to promote the use of drone delivery as a service, as part of the NAAMA Initiative (a Hebrew acronym for Urban Aerial Transport).

Drones flying in a forest near the city of Hadera on Wednesday March 17, 2021 in a pilot run by the Israel Innovation Authority with partners and startups to create a network of drone deliveries in Israel (Courtesy)

The project was established to enable drones to be deployed for the public good, ultimately reducing congestion on public roads, transporting medicine and medical equipment and performing medical tasks, delivering various commercial goods more quickly, and enabling urban air mobility (UAM) to function at scale in the future, the organizers said in a statement.

Israel is hoping as well to use the technological prowess it has developed in the military drone sector to become a global player in the multibillion-dollar civilian sector, competing against China and the US.

The global commercial drone market is projected to grow significantly by 2025, according to ResearchandMarkets, driven by a rise in demand for aerial services and advancements in camera, mapping and other software.

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