The Coming Drone Delivery Revolution – What Comes Next?
In 2015 I wrote a column talking through the issues that needed to be resolved before we would ever see a significant level of deliveries by drones. In that column, I brought up 37 issues that still needed to be resolved.
Not surprising, the evolution of drone technology has solved many of them, including some questions related to durability, range, and collision avoidance. Other issues, such as designated delivery landing spots, drone education, and a “flying drone bill of rights” were generally less technical and more system-related.
That said, we still have a long ways to go before drones are commonplace in our neighborhoods, suburbs, and cities. But the prospects for drone delivery are increasingly positive and closer than ever.
The commercial use of drones is already fairly widespread. Maybe their most visible manifestation is their use in news coverage and how they’ve replaced blimps at major sporting events. That’s just scratching the surface, though. Behind the scenes and above our heads drones are supporting:
- Law enforcement – surveillance and investigations
- Insurance – reviewing property damage
- Construction – conducting safety inspections
- Agriculture – monitoring crops
- Military – reconnaissance
Until now, though, commercial drones have been used as “flying cameras.” The next growth phase for commercial drone usage will be for delivery services. That’s when they’ll really catch our attention – literally – and become an integral part of our lives.
That won’t be too far off. Analysts estimate that the global drone delivery service industry will stand at more than $9.5 billion by 2027.
The Current State of Drone-Based Delivery
How far have we come in six years? The Federal Aviation Administration seems on board with drone deliveries in theory, which is an important next step. Late last year the FAA approved Amazon’s use of drones to deliver packages in remote, rural areas. Alphabet’s (parent company of Google) Wing Aviation and UPS’s Flight Forward service had also received similar approvals.
These companies are certified as “air carriers,” but apparently, regulators are still concerned about drones and packages falling from the sky in more urban areas. It appears that for the time being at least, the FAA wants humans closely monitoring each one … if not flying them remotely.
It’s interesting to note that, according to one consultant in this area, the FAA isn’t taking the approach of telling companies exactly how to operate safely. Instead, they’re evaluating the safety measures these companies propose and describe.
Presumably, these three companies have already addressed several of the safety issues I mentioned six years ago. We can’t know for sure, though, since the manuals and the other information they’ve supplied to the FAA are confidential due to their proprietary technology. Experts suggest these safety solutions include parachutes; self-destruct capabilities; and other controlled, emergency descent failsafe features.
Future Trends in Drone Technology and Applications
Technology will continue to improve in ways that will make drones an even more viable delivery vehicle.
The evolution of single-charge lithium-metal batteries to replace larger lithium-ion batteries will give drones greater range. And enhanced autonomous navigation will enhance their maneuverability to the point they can navigate their way within a residence or a building to deliver more sensitive material.
As with so many aspects of our lives, the pandemic sped up certain technology applications that were already trending. One of those is the use of drones in healthcare, including for delivery of vaccines in remote, third-world areas. This experience has made healthcare providers eager to not only explore prescription delivery options but to provide a system to collect certain, easier-to-obtain human tissue and fluid samples for analysis in conjunction with a telehealth house call.
This calls for drones with fly/drive capabilities that can enter a residence, navigate the rooms, and perhaps even park itself on the dining room table, delivering medications while the patient telecommunicates with the physician and loads up the drone with samples to carry back on the return flight.
Researchers at the University of Cincinnati have developed a prototype drone to do exactly that, including outfitting it with cameras and a display screen to facilitate direct communication between the patient and the healthcare professional.
The possibilities are endless. Last year, NATO tested a system in which drones could resupply isolated troops in response to requests from individual soldiers.
Specialized Delivery Sectors
The different players in drone-based delivery will make advances that support their respective business models. Alphabet’s Wing Aviation is likely to reflect Google’s strength in small business and local retail.
The company is exploring drone delivery for retail purchases, food, and otherwise, for example. UPS is expected to continue to extend its legacy of prescription medicine delivery using drones. Amazon will take advantage of its localized warehouses and use their drones for short-distance delivery of smaller packages, taking some of its fleet of vans off the road.
Drone Traffic Control
And speaking of roads, we can expect early drone delivery services to resemble vehicles traveling on a road system 400 or so feet in the air. Think of it in terms of drones on a road grid with major arteries connecting to minor streets, rather than a flock of birds flying wherever they wish. In fact, to facilitate residential deliveries and minimize nuisance, these drone routes may very closely mirror our current street maps.
The big breakthrough, though, will be when the FAA approves autonomous operating drones – not piloted and not supervised. That’s when companies will be able to scale their operations tremendously.
At that point, drones will become flying robots, doing their jobs better than we can, which we should be getting used to by now.
We’ve made a lot of progress on the 37 delivery drone-related challenges I raised six years ago. But according to my calculations, there are at least 14 more to go, even if I’m grading our progress generously.