Though still in its infancy, the drone delivery business is set to take off in the coming years. Spurred by everything from environmental concerns to the desire to avoid congested roads, companies are developing, testing, and beginning to implement a wide array of drone delivery systems.
A number of practicalities need to be worked out before drone delivery becomes an everyday occurrence — including regulations and drone technology itself — but it’s likely only a matter of time.
“Drone delivery has the potential to radically improve the way we live by making the things we need in a hurry available in just minutes,” said Alexa Dennett, a spokesperson for Wing.
“As a faster, safer, and more environmentally friendly method of delivery, we believe drones will be commonplace in the near future,” she told TechNewsWorld.
Wing, a subsidiary of Google parent company Alphabet, already has started making limited drone deliveries in three markets: Helsinki; Canberra, Australia; and Christiansburg, Virginia.
Wing is not the only player in the market. UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward recently received full Part 135 certification from the FAA. UC San Diego Health, in collaboration with UPS and Matternet, soon will pilot a program to deliver medical supplies and documents to several of its facilities.
Zipline has been delivering medical supplies to remote locations in Rwanda for several years. Flytrex is testing food delivery in Raleigh, North Carolina; and Amazon Prime Air continues to develop its own drone delivery system.
The Benefits of Going Drone
Delivery by drone promises a variety of benefits, including reducing carbon emissions, increasing delivery speed, making deliveries more accessible, and spurring local economic opportunities.
“We believe that delivering goods by drones is faster, safer, more affordable, efficient and environmentally sustainable, compared to today’s car and truck delivery systems,” said Wing’s Dennett. “Drone deliveries offer the potential to improve the way our cities operate by reducing road congestion and creating new economic opportunities for local businesses.”
Used instead of cars and trucks, drones could reduce greenhouse emissions drastically — by up to 99 percent, according to an AlphaBeta study commissioned by Wing.
Wing and Virginia Tech partnered to research the potential impacts of drone delivery. So far, this research suggests that in the Blacksburg-Christiansburg metropolitan area, drones possibly could take 3,385 cars off the road, save 40.2 tons of C02 each year, and save customers time worth US$46.6 million annually.
“There are three primary benefits of drone delivery,” noted Guy Bloch, CEO of Bringg.
“It will drastically reduce the environmental impact that large trucks from warehouses or even smaller delivery vehicles produce,” he told TechNewsWorld. “The cost — at least for ultra- fast deliveries — will be far lower, as retailers won’t have to worry about filling an entire vehicle.”
Another advantage is speed, Bloch said. “It will allow retailers to more dependably provide fast deliveries.”
The Sky Ahead
It won’t be all smooth sailing — or flying — however. Drone delivery becoming commonplace relies on working out regulations as well as solving a variety of other technological, economic and cultural issues.
Ensuring public and airway safety is a primary concern, and the industry is working closely with the FAA and other regulatory organizations to develop safe standards and practices.
“The whole development of the commercial drone industry revolves around safety,” said Mike Hertzendorf, CEO of NUAIR.
“The United States has one of the most — if not the most — heavily trafficked airspaces in the world,” he told TechNewsWorld.
The Unmanned Aircraft Systems industry needs “to do everything we can to make sure people in the air and on the ground remain safe,” Hertzendorf added.
Given all that must be done, it’s not likely that drone delivery will become commonplace in the near future — particularly in cities, where air traffic is much higher than in rural areas.
“I believe we are still a ways away from routine drone deliveries in highly populated areas,” said Hertzendorf.
“The current regulation around drones from the FAA is called ‘Part 107.’ A couple of the main regulations in Part 107 is the restriction of flying your drone farther than you can see it, and it prohibits flights over people. So again, all based around safety,” he explained.
“NUAIR is a key industry leader helping to develop the standards and help define regulations to expand on Part 107, which will lead to advanced commercial drone operations like food, package and medical deliveries,” Hertzendorf said.
Industry groups like NUAIR are working with the FAA as it develops regulations to protect peoples’ safety, but the process likely will take some time.
“We are actively figuring out what regulations need to be in place to make sure those in the air and on the ground remain safe during routine drone operations,” said Hertzendorf.
“The technology is there for these advanced drone operations. We just need to figure out and implement the appropriate performance requirements, rules and regulations — that and the other multitude of issues, like flying beyond visual line of sight, weather impact on drones, and the different weather patterns inside city limits versus rural areas,” he continued. “Needless to say, there are many issues that need to be addressed before we’ll see the sky filled with drones.”
In short, regular drone delivery of packages to doorsteps — as appealing as it may be — probably will not happen any time soon.
“There is a great deal of speculation regarding drone-based package delivery,” said Henry Fletcher, a drone specialist a Cambridge Consultants.
“Forecasts predict anything from limited, premium deliveries and indirect contact with consumers to drone-based small parcel delivery becoming ubiquitous, enabled by cost reductions over conventional delivery from high levels of automation and lightweight last-mile transit,” he told TechNewsWorld.
“The technology exists and is very capable, but as a whole, the industry needs to prove its safety credentials in a highly regulated area,” Fletcher pointed out. “This can only happen at a limited pace and will inevitably suffer setbacks along the way.”
The Future of Drones
Even when drones become more commonplace, they likely will not replace other methods of transport and delivery. Rather, they’ll be part of a mix of delivery methods, and the methods used in any given case will depend on the goods being delivered, location, distance, weight, and a variety of other factors.
“Delivery via drone will just be another economical tool for the delivery of certain products, much like there are still products being delivered via barges across the ocean or being hauled across the country via train,” explained NUAIR’s Hertzendorf.
“The advent of the airplane did not replace these delivery methods,” he noted. “The ability for any of these vehicles, including drones, to deliver a product relies on many of the same issues and limitations — what is it, where is it going, and what’s the most economical and logical way to get it there. I do not see routine deliveries via drones totally replacing current shipping methods. They’re just another potential option for faster, more efficient deliveries of certain products.”