By Hugo Britt
It is only a matter of time before the skies above U.S. cities are filled with the buzzing of airborne delivery drones.
With e-Commerce sales increasing by more than 30% between 2019 and 2020 (and an expected 11% increase in 2021), the way we approach our purchases has shifted for good. Delivery methods, too, are undergoing a period of rapid change.
In fact, you might say last mile delivery is up in the air.
Airborne Drone Delivery Uptake Increasing Worldwide
Customers all over the world expect ever-increasing speed, convenience, and visibility when having products delivered to their homes. Due to COVID-19, contactless delivery has also become a necessity. But the danger of a booming e-Commerce industry is that roads are becoming choked with delivery vehicles of all sizes.
One solution is to use airborne delivery drones or Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS). Many countries including France, the United Kingdom, and Israel are taking advantage of UAS technology, while the U.S. is moving more cautiously. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is taking a slow but consistent approach to enable drone delivery, beginning with small trials and exemptions to deliver essential medicines to remote recipients.
Companies Preparing for Airborne Drone Delivery
Many major e-Commerce and delivery companies have already committed to the development of autonomous drone delivery. Amazon has been running Prime Air since 2016, with a long-term goal of drones delivering orders in 30 minutes or less. UPS’s subsidiary Flight Forward has partnered with pharmacies like CVS to make last-mile deliveries of important prescriptions to residents of The Villages, an expansive retirement community in Florida. Zipline, a medical drone delivery company has also partnered with UPS as well as Google to ensure delivery of crucial medical supplies in Rwanda and other developing countries.
As these initiatives expand, concerns have been raised about the safety and convenience of UAS, as well as the regulations necessary to certify drone pilots and communicate necessary information to other airborne operations.
Some of the reasons the FAA is moving so cautiously is safety concerns—such as drones colliding with each other, interfering with other aircraft, or colliding with people—and privacy and security/restricted airspace concerns.
Benefits of UAS delivery include:
Speed: Depending on the customer’s proximity to the base of operations, UAS can be much faster than road-based delivery systems as they can fly in a direct line to their destination, avoid traffic delays, and rapidly deliver the item by lowering it by tether or landing in a designated spot.
Sustainability: At present, transportation is the largest contributor of greenhouse gas emissions in the U.S. and drone delivery could lead to a significant decrease in that number. Efforts have been made to ensure drones have zero operational emissions, reducing the carbon footprint nationwide. Studies have shown that small drone delivery is already much more environmentally friendly than ground-based delivery.
Less congestion: No more idling delivery trucks blocking the road! Fewer commercial vehicles on the road will mean decreased traffic, as well as a potential for reduced damage to the roads. Councils will save on road repair costs, delivery companies will save on tolls, and commuters will enjoy shorter traveling times. Delivery vans and trucks will still be necessary for items too heavy for drones to carry, but taking millions of light-weight package deliveries off the roads will make an enormous impact.
As detailed in its report, Aerospace Forecast 2020-2040, the FAA expects major growth in both small UAS (less than 55 pounds maximum take-off weight) and larger UAS (maximum take-off weight of more than 55 pounds). Small commercial drone usage is expected to grow dramatically within the next five years, with the FAA projecting 1.48 million units by 2024.
In late December 2020, the FAA announced a set of drone rules that contribute to the framework needed for a future of drone delivery. The new rules allow operators of small drones to fly over people and at night under certain conditions, along with rules around Remote Identification, or a “digital licence-plate” for drones.
According to a press release, Remote ID “is a major step toward the full integration of drones into the national airspace system. Remote ID provides identification of drones in flight as well as the location of their control stations, providing crucial information to our national security agencies and law enforcement partners, and other officials charged with ensuring public safety. Airspace awareness reduces the risk of drone interference with other aircraft and people and property on the ground.”
FAA Administrator Steve Dickson commented: “[These new rules] get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages.”
Airborne drones are the future of delivery services. Contactless services are a necessity for safer purchases, and autonomous vehicles like drones allow us to make those services available at a lower cost with lower risks for the road, the consumer, and the environment.