Drone Deliveries Prepared for Takeoff!

Google, UPS and Amazon are racing to make cost-saving drone deliveries a reality.

By Chase Guttman

By Chase Guttman February 9, 2024

In the first half of the 20th century, automobiles revolutionized transportation and the global economy. A century later, drones are doing the same. In particular, delivery drones. Faster, cheaper and cleaner than ground-based delivery vehicles, drones are driving people to reimagine how packages, including food deliveries, are transported to people’s doorsteps, faster than ever.

Progress in safety, technology and public policy changes are lifting cloud-powered delivery drones from possibility to reality, according to Vikram Singh, CEO of TechEagle, which has conducted more than a thousand drone deliveries in rural parts of India.

"2021 was a tipping point for drones and drone deliveries,” Singh said. 

“2022 will be the year of validation and small-scale operations of drone deliveries in different industries, such as healthcare, e-commerce, hyperlocal, etc. And 2023 will be the year of large-scale adoption of drone deliveries.”


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Singh was right. The number of drone deliveries increased by more than 80% from 2021 to 2022, nearing 875,000 deliveries worldwide and it’s projected to exceed a million deliveries by the end of 2023, according to McKinsey

Delivery drones are about to take off, literally. From food deliveries in China, mall-to-home shipments in Australia, and aerial transportation of medication over Utah, they’re here in force, and they’re about to drop a whole new future at your doorstep.

Sky’s the Limit

Signh sees drones bringing new benefits and capabilities to a variety of industries.

“Drones are autonomous, faster, more reliable and more economical than conventional methods of deliveries,” explained Singh.

He said his company’s drones can deliver parcels 20 times faster than ground-based transportation. 

“They are proving to transform logistics.”

Drones, also known as unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), are also contactless, which was key in the age of COVID, and can help solve some supply chain issues like trucker shortages.

“As supply chain needs shift to direct-to-consumer needs, we must strive to have supply chain innovation to make a superior, seamless user experience that more aligns with Amazon-like service and flexibility,” said Glen Beeby, a media specialist at Intermountain Healthcare

Beeby’s organization is partnering with medical product delivery company Zipline to launch a UAV delivery program for its patients in Utah. It believes drone deliveries can democratize commerce and fill service gaps that exist in pharmacy and food deserts.

“Drones enable Intermountain to grow by delivering more types of care outside the traditional practice setting,” said Allison Corry, chief supply chain officer at Intermountain. 

Corry said Zipline pushes healthcare closer to patients, regardless of where they live, what their transportation options are, or their work schedule. 

“We expect this effort will increase prescription adherence for patients,” she said. “Intermountain will be able to provide better care and have greater reach in rural and underserved communities.”

Off to a Flying Start

UAV deliveries are starting to scale worldwide, with different industries, companies and solutions competing for supremacy. Due in part to regulations, some early services cut their teeth in markets with less developed transportation pipelines.

Zipline, for example, began by delivering life-saving medical supplies via drone to distant corners of Rwanda and Ghana. Its technology was honed in rural Africa, where road infrastructure is poor and UAVs were able to reduce delivery times from four hours to 20 minutes. More than 250,000 commercial deliveries later, Zipline created the world’s first national drone-delivery program at scale.

“With Zipline’s instant logistics system, all people can have safe, reliable, ready access to anything, creating a more efficient and equitable model for delivery,” said Conor French, general counsel at Zipline. 

“In addition, Zipline takes deliveries off the roads and out of fossil fuel-powered vehicles, eliminating unnecessary pollution, traffic, collisions and noise, and pioneering a more sustainable delivery system.”

Now, the company is expanding in the United States, partnering with Intermountain Healthcare to bring medication to patients in Utah, collaborating with Novant Health to deliver PPE in North Carolina, and working with Walmart in Arkansas to ship goods directly to consumers.

Walmart is also working with DroneUp, which has installed delivery hubs at a few initial superstore locations.

“We have safely completed hundreds of retail drone deliveries from Walmart stores,” says Amy Wiegand, senior director of marketing and communications at DroneUp. “DroneUp deliveries utilize a state-of-the-art air traffic control tower located at our launch and landing site to ensure our personnel can always see the drone.”

As Walmart works to compete with fully digital product ordering systems like Amazon, this delivery leg-up could help it become a leader in the space. With 4,700 stores across the United States, each location could theoretically host a hub with a 50-mile delivery radius.

Google’s Wing is likewise taking advantage of existing spaces to carry goods from retail locations directly to customer homes. In Australia, it’s building “droneports” on mall rooftops. Nearly two-thirds of Australia’s population live within 30 minutes of their existing hubs.

“This creates new economic opportunities for businesses by utilizing their existing retail space as logistics hubs and fulfillment centers,” Jesse Suskin, head of government relations and public policy at Wing Australia, said in a statement.


Drones Connect to Cloud Computing to Analyze Data from the Sky

Companies no longer have to bring their goods to a logistics center to deliver to their customers. Now, the delivery facility comes to them.

“We’re still in the early days of drone delivery, but things are starting to move quickly,” said Scott Coriell, strategic communications at Wing, which is now partnering with Walgreens to launch its first U.S. metro drone delivery service in Dallas. 

“We made more than 140,000 deliveries to customers in 2021, a more than 600% increase over 2020. We expect to launch the service, which will be the world’s first residential drone delivery service in a major metropolitan area, in the coming months.”

Meituan, a major food delivery company in China, has already been doing urban drone deliveries to street-side kiosks in Shenzen, which is home to 20 million people. While most Americans live in suburban sprawl, China’s population mostly reside in cities, so companies like Meituan established themselves in urban areas first.


Drones Help Feed the World

Still others in the space include Manna, which is making hundreds of drone deliveries a day in Ireland as it looks to expand its operation to larger cities; UPS, which has developed special drone packaging to transport COVID-19 vaccine doses domestically; Flytrex, whose focused on food and retail delivery in US suburbs, and Everdrone, which made international headlines for saving the life of a cardiac arrest patient in Sweden with a defibrillator drone.

Amazon, whose viral PrimeAir video first brought a lot of the world’s attention to this space all the way back in 2015, is finally launching its delivery service across Italy, the United Kingdom and the US after much delay.

Cloud on the Horizon

As drone deliveries continue their meteoric rise, regulations remain one of their biggest obstacles.

“Regulators throughout are still moving slowly in comparison to technology demand and adoption,” Singh says.

Cloud computing could help.

Take DroneUp, for instance, which recently acquired a company called AirMap. The company aims to accelerate the adoption of small, unmanned aircraft system technology, according to Wiegand. 

“The platform connects airspace authorities with the drone ecosystem to exchange information about the low-altitude airspace traffic management environment using a cloud-based dashboard,” she said.


Controlling Crowded Airspace with Data Technologies

With the assistance of cloud-enabled platforms like AirMap, regulators have greater ability to manage airspace traffic and can relax some of their more stifling flight restrictions, allowing drone deliveries to truly take off.

The cloud is also an essential part of everyday UAV flight operations, according to Singh. 

“TechEagle uses cloud computing and AI for autonomous control, navigation, obstacle avoidance, redundant safety layers, and for the best utilization of the drone fleet in operations,” he said.

But the regulatory tides are certainly changing. Recently, Zipline was one of a handful of companies to receive special authorization from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to fly beyond visual line of sight, thus ending the agency’s requirement for a person to observe each and every flight, a primary obstacle in scaling deliveries. Such a seismic shift could be what’s needed to make drones the most cost-effective mode of delivery in the world.

Shoot for the Sky

UAV deliveries are flying high as they begin to hit their stride across many global markets.

“Drones are an excellent solution for the last-mile delivery of goods and the future of developing smart cities,” Wiegand said. 

“Engaging drones can connect people to services with speed and convenience, eliminating traffic while offering sustainable and greener options for receiving goods and services.”


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UAVs are going the extra mile to deliver a future of convenience, easier commerce and even lifesaving aid to all.

“We'll continue building towards a future where physical goods can be moved as easily as sending a text message — a future we’re a lot closer to than most people think,” French said.

This is an updated version of the article originally published on February 9, 2022.

Chase Guttman is a technology writer. He’s also an award-winning travel photographer, Emmy-winning 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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