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Drone-to-door delivery services: Futuristic fantasy or the next big thing in the Boreys?

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A drone flying over Phnom Penh’s suburban rooftops with a black plastic bag hanging underneath it from a metre-long rope was widely shared this past week on Facebook. Photo supplied

Drone-to-door delivery services: Futuristic fantasy or the next big thing in the Boreys?

The use of drones for disparate and varied purposes related to filming, photography and even farming is already a widespread and well-established phenomenon in Cambodia.

Now that these flying gadgets have become powerful enough to carry packages with them while in flight the possibility of home deliveries via drone has arrived.

In a video that was widely shared this past week on Facebook, we see a shot of a drone flying over Phnom Penh’s suburban rooftops with a black plastic bag hanging underneath it from a metre-long rope.

The drone lands on a rooftop and a woman in pajamas emerges and unhooks the bag from it. Moments later the drone lifts off again into the air and flies back in the direction from whence it came.

Along with the video, an entrepreneur began “advertising” a drone delivery service through his Facebook account with the pitch: “Stay safe from Covid! Our drones can deliver a box of instant noodles to your sister in Borey New World Chamkar Dong!”

“One dollar per delivery within Borey New World. You must provide a specific address for us to deliver to because our drones rely on maps to navigate. Don’t forget to spray your package with alcohol when it arrives for guaranteed protection!

“For deliveries outside of Borey New World we have a 5km range in any direction but we charge an extra fee. No more than 5km distance – or I’ll lose my drone and you’ll lose your package!”

The drone delivery video went viral among Khmer Facebook users, who have now viewed it 86k times and shared it over 5k times in just a few days.

People marvelled in the video’s comments section at the notion of drones delivering packages in Cambodia, a country that is developing rapidly in the 21st century but is still a far cry from what most consider fully “modern” – never mind the notion of Cambodia being a place that could be described as “futuristic”.

Though drone delivery seems like it would be the perfect fit for both the Covid-19 era and particularly handy now while the city undergoes a period of extended lockdown, the business isn’t a real going concern yet – at least not presently.

The video was staged for entertainment purposes and the business is only in the dreams of the man behind it all.

Content image - Phnom Penh Post
A drone flying over Phnom Penh’s suburban rooftops with a black plastic bag hanging underneath it from a metre-long rope was widely shared this past week on Facebook. Photo supplied

Rum Buntith who piloted the delivery drone and posted the video to Facebook confirmed to The Post that “For now it’s all just a fantasy, it’s not a real business.”

“I just wanted to propose the concept to the public and make people think about the advantages of it, and I also wanted to make something funny to entertain people on social media during the lockdown,” said Buntith, 34, who produced the video in Borey New World Chomkar Dong, where he also resides.

Buntith did not expect that Cambodian people would be this curious about drone delivery, but apparently under the present circumstances where they can’t go outside or go about their lives normally, the public had some extra time to take notice.

“I’m so happy to see this reaction and I’m proud that it was my idea. I taught myself how to fly drones and I now have about two years of experience under my belt,” said Buntith, who studied at the University of Health Sciences and has always loved new technology.

Buntith, who currently makes a living as the owner of a restaurant in Phnom Penh, said that his drone is a DJI PHANTOM 4 that can fly 5-8km and reach an altitude of 500m.

It is equipped with 6 sensors that it can use to fly on autopilot to prevent crashes and it has an automatic “go home” feature that is triggered if the pilot loses connection to it or if any other problems occur while it is flying.

One big reason that drone delivery isn’t a viable business opportunity immediately despite the circumstances with Covid-19 and the advantages drones would have during the pandemic is that many areas of Phnom Penh have been designated as no-drone zones.

The Ministry of Interior last year expressed their concerns about unregulated drones being a risk to national security, and they drafted a sub-decree to regulate the operation of unmanned aerial vehicles.

As an experienced drone user who is familiar with the regulations, Buntith said that “according to Cambodian law, we’re not allowed to fly drones anywhere even though drones have the ability to receive a signal alerting it every time it approaches a no-fly zone so that it turns back, such as near the airport.”

“Under the law drones are totally banned in Phnom Penh unless you have ministry permission first,” Buntith said.

The public interest and enthusiasm shown for Buntith’s fantasy business concept might provide the motivation and initiative to someday pave the way for changes to regulations in aero-transportation in the Kingdom.

Technology in the 21st century is constantly developing and improving – and drones are no exception.

Globally, experts predict an increase in drone usage over the next decade for everything from grocery deliveries to deadly warfare – with drone units on the ground at and at sea – along with the flying drones already in use by dozens of nation’s military forces.

It is therefore likely that Cambodia will eventually have to loosen drone restrictions or at least allow for businesses with the proper permits or licenses to operate drones within Phnom Penh’s borders sooner or later -- and on an ongoing basis – rather than issuing case-by-case permits every time a drone somewhere in the city needs to take to the skies.

Right now, particularly with the pandemic lockdown in place, drone delivery in Cambodia would be a useful and viable service. Buntith fully expects to see this happen in the near-future even after Covid-19 is just a fading memory.

“Of course, I’m certain a future full of drones will be happening because already helicopters with cameramen riding in them have become obsolete given that drones can take those aerial shots so much cheaper.

“Think about it: To get that shot you used to have to charter a helicopter flight! Now, an off-the-shelf drone can do it for a few hundred dollars maybe. That’s the kind of efficiency drones can bring – in many other areas beyond just filming -- and it can’t be ignored forever,” Buntith says.

Across the ocean in the USA, the online retailing giant Amazon – as well as global shipping companies such as United Parcel Service (UPS) and Federal Express – are all actively testing drone deliveries in some markets.

And here in Southeast Asia, Foodpanda is working with ST Engineering to trailblaze drone deliveries in Singapore for 2021 and beyond.

Maybe it won’t be today, tomorrow or next month for the drone revolution to occur in Cambodia – but Buntith says he feels certain that the smart bet will be on more and better drones operating here as well over the long term and also probably sooner than people think.

His viral drone delivery video has shown that the Cambodian public seems to agree with Buntith’s analysis. Drones are going to be a great business opportunity in the future – and the only question is how far distant that future might be.

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