Since the inception of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, internet companies have been racing against each other to get the right service to the right person as quickly as possible. Thanks to the COVID-19 pandemic, that race has become more competitive than ever. And in the case of one service, in particular, more urgent: drone deliveries.
With more people shopping online than ever before, and with consumers newly eager to socially distance from human delivery drivers, delivery drones are beginning to sound not just cool, but also practical. Which begs the question: Has their time finally come?
Last month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) suggested that it has by giving e-commerce juggernaut Amazon permission to test its long-teased Prime Air service in the United States.
Just imagine a drone delivery superhighway buzzing in the skies above, transporting everything from books to toothpaste with mind-blowing speed and efficiency. The FAA’s decision means you might not have to imagine it for much longer; soon, you might actually witness it.
“Amazon is the third player to get this certification. It’s a great sign to show that package delivery is really gaining traction and to see that people are legally able to test this kind of operation and scale them out,” said David Benowitz, head of research at Drone Analyst.
The results could be consequential not only for commerce, but also for the planet: Today, trucks carry 70 percent of all goods transported in the United States. By transforming the logistics that power the 21st century economy, delivery drones can help ease congestion on crowded motorways and decrease fuel emissions that pollute an increasingly fragile environment. All that’s needed is a final push by regulators and industry to prove that drone deliveries are as safe and scalable as they are sexy.
Since announcing Prime Air in 2013, Amazon’s goal has been to give its customers access to package deliveries in 30 minutes or less.
“Drones solve the last-mile delivery problem,” Benowitz said. “If you have a big hub like a local warehouse with Amazon, you can operate from that warehouse via drones instead of having a network of drivers and scheduling their time.”
In the air, unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) can travel from point to point quickly and directly, bypassing existing infrastructure while greatly reducing transportation and personnel costs at numerous points within the retail supply chain.
“The potential is in bigger drones that use larger logistical hubs to supply smaller logistical hubs,” said Kay Wackwitz, founder and CEO of Drone Industry Insights. “With a drone you can basically jump over two or three logistics steps. Drones offer the opportunity to be disruptive. I think this will have a very big impact on the retail industry in terms of reducing cost for last-mile delivery or for hub-to-hub delivery.”
In fact, Drone Industry Insights projects that deliveries will be the fastest growing segment of the global drone industry. To understand why, consider Zipline, a company that deploys UAVs to quickly deliver essential and life-saving medical supplies to rural parts of Rwanda.
“One-seventh of the entire world population doesn’t have year-round access to roads,” Wackwitz said. “Drones are a very good vehicle to overcome this obstacle.”
Despite the potential, companies like Amazon continue to contend with regulations that have often throttled the growth of the drone delivery market in the United States.
“Amazon is certified for very specific limited-scope operations. There’s going to be a whole different type of certification from the FAA likely next year,” Benowitz said. “There’s a lot to go in terms of proving the safety of these operations and working with the FAA to allow them to operate more broadly across America.”
The next iteration of regulations could open the door to more widespread drone deliveries — as long as they prove to be commercially viable.
“Right now, it’s one person, one drone. It’s like one person with a parcel under their arm, so it doesn’t have this tremendous effect that Amazon is waiting for,” Wackwitz said. “There’s no framework that describes what a fully autonomous operation would look like. From a regulation point of view, we need the ability to fly much longer distances — beyond the visual line of sight. That’s absolutely crucial because it’s the only point that will really bring drone operations to scale.”
Once drone deliveries become fully autonomous, a single person can oversee multiple preprogrammed flights at once as UAVs automatically and simultaneously deliver packages to consumers.
“Let’s not over-prescribe these requirements,” said Andy Thurling, chief technology officer at Northeast UAS Airspace Integration Research (NUAIR), which oversees one of seven FAA-approved drone testing sites. “Let’s make them appropriate and let’s make them safe, but let’s make them achievable.”
With its new FAA certificate, Amazon will begin what’s likely to be years of testing for Prime Air.
“It’s all about collecting data in a disciplined fashion over thousands of hours so they can answer the questions their regulators are going to want to have answered,” Thurling said. “It’s a very risk-based process that the FAA has set up.”
As fleets of delivery drones become airborne, the vehicles have to communicate their position not only with one another but also with manned aircraft, including commercial airplanes. The Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) utilizes cloud computing to help drones talk to one another in the air – a prerequisite for autonomous flight. In the process, each vehicle receives a remote identification.
“This lets any pilot flying a drone understand the space around them,” Benowitz said. “You can kind of think of it as a license plate for drones.”
Both cloud and edge computing are key to keeping drone operations safe as deliveries are scaled.
“Where tons of data is being generated, cloud computing will become extremely relevant,” Wackwitz said. “And where it’s really hard to navigate, like the last 50 feet where a drone has to avoid hitting obstacles, edge computing or onboard processing of that data will become more relevant.”
Competing for Aerial Supremacy
Amazon isn’t alone in its race to the last mile. Within the U.S. market alone, Google subsidiary Wing and UPS already are flying and making deliveries. The former went viral in 2016 when it began delivering Chipotle burritos to students at Virginia Tech.
“Wing was the first to get any type of [FAA clearance], although it was pretty limited. They’re a complete year ahead of where Amazon is today,” Benowitz said. “Those guys are the leaders when it comes to package delivery and they’re already working with Walgreens and other local businesses in Virginia [to deliver] products.”
Even so, Amazon’s rare certification is groundbreaking for an industry that’s still in its nascent stages.
“In contrast to the other players that have already received their [FAA] certificates in the U.S., Amazon is a retailer with its own distribution infrastructure, and they developed their own platform to fly stuff from A to B. I think this is the first player that can now scale this operation limitless,” Wackwitz said.
Any company in this space has to make huge investments in research, development and testing, which is why the three corporations the FAA has certified thus far are giants in their respective industries.
“You have these front runners, but once they basically do all the heavy lifting, more players will join and you’ll have this surge effect in the industry,” Wackwitz said. “More players will join the game and also bigger players that we don’t have on the radar yet. Maybe we’ll see a more viable nationwide service three to five years from now.”
These companies’ cloud-powered work brings cautious optimism to an industry that might be only a single technological or regulatory breakthrough away from completely transforming — and thereby dominating — the delivery industry. If that happens, their shareholders won’t be the only ones who profit. So will consumers, who will benefit from cleaner air and faster receipt of food, medicine and other essentials.
“I think the future is bright. Drones have always been a means of doing good,” Thurling said.
Chase Guttman is a technology writer specializing in drones. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, drone cinematographer, author, lecturer and instructor. His book, The Handbook of Drone Photography, was one of the first written on the topic and received critical acclaim. Find him at chaseguttman.com or @chaseguttman.
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