Delivery drones or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), as they’re known, are being introduced into everyday life and functions across the world. From recreational flying to commercial uses, UAVs are making the transportation of packages, medical supplies, foods, and other goods easier than it has ever been. In November 2020, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) proposed airworthiness criteria for type certification of delivery drones intended to initialize commercial operations. Type certification essentially confirms that the aircraft is compliant with airworthiness requirements and ready for serial production. Amazon Prime Air, Zipline, and Wingcopter were amongst the ten drone delivery companies selected for this type of certification.
As stated earlier, Delivery Drones are unmanned aerial vehicles or UAVs for short. They are typically autonomous, meaning that they are self-driving or robotic cars. These vehicles can sense the environment around them and function safely within it using little or no human input. It is safe to say that the advancement of this technology will have a giant impact on a multitude of large industries.
The concept of drone delivery became mainstream thanks to Amazon Prime Air. Jeff Bezos, the founder of Amazon, announced that Amazon was planning rapid delivery of commercial products using UAVs back in 2013. The world was understandably skeptical due to the many obstructions that were in Amazon’s way, such as federal state and regulatory approval, public safety, individual privacy, security, and thievery being just a few.
In December of the same year, prototype drones delivered a sub-kilogram quantity of medicine, raising speculation that disaster relief may be the first industry to use this new technology. In July 2014, Amazon revealed that they were working on the 8th and 9th drone prototypes, which could fly at 50 mph and carry 2.3kgs of weight.
In December 2016, Amazon Prime Air made its first delivery using a drone in the United Kingdom. Delivery drones have had a massive impact on delivery services and commercial operations ever since. Organizations such as UNICEF are exploring the industry’s viability and capability of reaching previous unreachable populations to provide them aid.
UAVs are demonstrating the ability to deliver sensitive cargo, essential medicines, supplies, and life-saving materials efficiently and practically. Drones have many recreational and commercial applications, the most important of which are healthcare delivery, food delivery, postal delivery, and ship resupply.
Transporting medicinal products such as blood products, vaccines, and pharmaceuticals has been made easier thanks to drones. UAVs can enter remote locations that would otherwise be inaccessible. Medical drone delivery services can save lives during emergencies. Documented cases of this are the deliveries of blood in Rwanda and post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico.
Drones have made medical deliveries of protective equipment and COVID-19 tests in the United States, Ghana and other countries during the pandemic. Ghana’s ministry of health and Zipline partnered to ship thousands of COVID-19 vaccines during 2020 and 2021.
Organizations like UNICEF are also looking into the unexplored capabilities of medical delivery drones in humanitarian relief and emergency medical situations. UNICEF and its partners are focused on exploring the viability of using drones to access previously unreachable populations and better understand the opportunities that this technology opens to them.
Drone companies have tried to expand into the food delivery market with their drone delivery service. They proposed that drones deliver pre-prepared foods such as pizzas, tacos, and even frozen beverages.
One of the earliest drone delivery services was by a company called Star Simpson. Their prototype delivery drone, The Tacocopter, was designed to utilize a smartphone app to deliver tacos in the San Francisco area.
A similar concept named the “burrito bomber” was tested in 2012.
Various postal companies from the United Kingdoms, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and more have undertaken different trials to test the viability and profitability of drone shipping and drone package delivery. Most notable is the United States Postal Service (USPS), which has been testing new delivery systems in partnership with HorseFly Drones.
Different shipping lines such as the Maersk and the Port of Rotterdam have been experimenting with using drones to resupply offshore ships instead of sending boats.
In February 2014, the prime minister and cabinet affairs minister of the UAE announced that they were planning to launch a fleet of UAVs for civilian purposes such as delivering passports, ID cards, and licenses. A four-rotor, battery-powered UAV prototype was displayed in Dubai.
The FAA blocked initial attempts at commercial use of UAVs in the United States allowed them later. In June 2014, the FAA published a document that listed activities not permitted under its regulations, including the commercial use of drones. The organization stated that commercial use included delivering packages to people for a fee or anything offered as part of a purchase of another offer. The agency issued waivers to many organizations for less restrictive commercial uses, but they each had to apply individually.
In August of 2016, the FAA adopted rules that allowed limited commercial use by right. Drone operation under these rules is restricted to the line-of-sight of the drone pilots. Drones are not allowed to fly over people, meaning that many drone applications such as delivery to populated areas still require a waiver. The FAA stated that the UAVs must weigh less than 25kg and fly up to a maximum of 120m at a speed of no more than 100mph. UAVs must also only be utilized during the daytime, and drone operators must qualify for flying certificates and be 16 years old at the very least.
In 2019, the FAA began certifying drone delivery companies under conventional charter airline Part 135 rules, with some accommodations for drones. The FAA finalized the Remote ID regulation in December 2020, giving manufacturers 18 months and operators 30 months to comply with the requirement for self-identification transmissions outside of designated areas.
The FAA, NASA, and other federal agencies are collaborating to explore concepts of operation, data exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable beyond visual line-of-sight drone operations at low altitudes in airspaces where the does not provide air traffic services.
UTM is a traffic management ecosystem for uncontrolled operations that compliments the FAA’s Traffic Management System. UTM development will ultimately identify services, roles, responsibilities, information architecture, infrastructure, and much more, enabling the management of low-altitude uncontrolled drone operations.
The commercial drone industry is young and growing larger by the minute. The industry has a massive potential for growth, but it is also faced by many challenges and concerns around privacy and security. Facing and conquering these challenges is essential to the success and long-term growth of the commercial drone industry.
We can say that the top challenges are the safety risks, Permits, Drones certifications and Virtual pilots training.
The solutions for these challenges are the new technologies, software, drones navigation systems, and for sure the most important thing for a safe operation is the cities infrastructure.
The development and implementation of UAVs have surged in the last couple of years. A few innovative companies have played a vital part in the advancement and evolution of drone services. These same companies are all developing their drone delivery systems, and most of them are available for commercial use today.
Prime Air is one of the pioneers of drone delivery services. They will deliver packages weighing up to 5 (pounds) in less than half an hour. They’ve been developing and testing their system in various centers around the United States, France, Israel, and other locations. Amazon received approval to operate its delivery drones in August of 2020.
Wingcopter provides drone services for commercial and humanitarian applications. They’re currently developing delivery options for postal services and retailers. The German-based company has operated commercially in Vanuatu in partnership with UNICEF for vaccine delivery, where they completed the first drone delivery of insulin without a visual line of sight.
Ziplines is a drone company based in San Francisco that operates from distribution centers available in each service region. They hire and personally train local talent to oversee flight operations. Their mission is to provide humans around the globe with access to critical life-saving products, and it’s safe to say that they’ve been doing a great job with nearly over 100,000 completed commercial deliveries under their wing.
Drones are currently being used for medical deliveries, package deliveries, and shipping various materials anywhere in the world. The industry has been advancing rapidly and shows no signs of slowing down. Your food orders might be arriving through drone delivery services sooner than you expect.
FedEx has been actively working on advancing drone delivery technologies, and in October of 2019, they collaborated with Wing Aviation to test small package deliveries in partnership with the FAA.
FedEx revealed their SameDay Bot, Roxo, in 2019. Roxo is a small robot designed for last-mile delivery, testing and development on Roxo is currently ongoing.
The company also began testing with Nuro R2, an autonomous delivery vehicle making pizza and parcel deliveries in Houston a part of a multiphase agreement to pilot autonomous last-mile delivery.
UPS Flight Forward was the first company to get full certification to operate a drone airline from the United States Government. They partnered with CVS to deliver prescription medication from pharmacies to the largest U.S. Retirement community, housing more than 135.000 residents.
The head of business development for UPS Flight Forward said the following during a virtual conference in April “We think speed and convenience of drone delivery are like no other. If you want a same-day delivery via ground courier today, you’re likely going to be issued a three-hour delivery window. With drones, we’re going to deliver in 30 minutes or less or give consumers an option of a 30-minute delivery window of their choosing”