Deliveries could start next year
That’s what the drone-based carriers are saying. Some regulatory hurdles have been cleared and others remain, but established logistics companies and start-ups focused on drone capabilities say limited commercial deliveries are underway now and will ramp up considerably in 2020.
UPS wins the race
On Sept. 27, UPS was awarded the first full certification from the U.S. Government to operate a drone airline. UPS' Flight Forward is approved to fly at night and to carry cargo weighing more than 55 pounds. It marks the most advanced certification granted to logistics companies to date. Upon approval, UPS commented that drone delivery makes more sense in some areas than others. For example, drone service may not be efficient in dense urban areas where package deliveries are already concentrated.
Medical deliveries are taking precedent
While drone deliveries’ ability to reduce local traffic is attractive, carriers such as UPS (in March) and Flirtey are promoting the goodwill that drone delivery brings, especially in terms of emergency medical care such as carrying defibrillators to save lives. UPS delivered medical samples by drone for a hospital in Raleigh, N.C. Drone delivery technology from Matternet is able to carry payloads of up to five pounds for distances of up to 12.5 miles.
Other drone delivery trials have been successful
Start-up Flirtey, based in Reno, Nev., says it was first to do so, when in July 2016 it delivered from 7-Eleven a chicken sandwich, donuts, candy, Slurpees and coffee to a nearby customer’s doorsteps via drone. In November 2018, 77 local 7-Eleven customers received deliveries of food and beverages and over-the-counter medicines. The drones used a GPS system to locate a customer’s house, where the drone wouldn’t land, but rather hover near the ground before lowering the package. In fall 2018, start-up Flytrex completed its first major deployment in the United States when for four weeks a golf course in Grand Forks, N.D., bringing burgers and soft drinks to golfers. In August, it was authorized to deliver food via drones flying about 220 feet above ground over a single delivery route: Holly Springs Towne Center to sports facility Ting Park. The flight crossed a state highway for a couple of seconds.
Amazon and Google are not far behind
Google beat Amazon by just a few weeks in the race to gain Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to make deliveries when it allowed it to deliver to Blacksburg, Va. Google sister company Wing this month is partnering with FedEx and Walgreens to bring autonomous deliveries in limited areas. Walgreens said in a release that 78 percent of the U.S. population lives within 5 miles of one of its stores. Amazon’s Prime Air made its first delivery in December 2016 in England.
You've gotta see it to believe it
Enter any of these companies’ names and drone delivery into a search box to find videos of drone deliveries. Most impressive is Flirtey’s technique of lowering the content via tether while the drone is suspended in air.
In a June blog, the Amazon Worldwide Consumer CEO says his group has “been hard at work building fully electric drones that can fly up to 15 miles and deliver packages under five pounds to customers in less than 30 minutes.” Flirtey has set a higher bar, saying its goal is to deliver in 10 minutes or less. Flirtey has been authorized to have one remote “pilot” commanding up to 10 drones at a given moment. Wing said that its drones can make round-trip flights of six miles, traveling about 60 mph and can carry three pounds.
Drone carriers shoot down skeptics
Flirtey says its aircraft is designed to operate in 95 percent of wind and weather conditions and can carry 75 percent of its customers’ payloads (the company wouldn’t specify further). It points out that the FAA designates drones as aircraft, and it is a felony to damage or destroy an aircraft – so no target practice. Drones generally are equipped with a parachute and a redundant engine, though they do not have cameras. And regarding curious birds, Flirtey says its drones have not encountered any challenges to date.
You can stand the noise
Flirtey says its drones have been designed to be quieter, and at cruise altitude, the drones are equivalent to ambient background noise. Flytrex equates its noise to a running dishwasher.
Drones are the next resident amenity
Flirtey Founder Matthew Sweeny says he’s interested in partnering with apartment communities wanting to use his system. As for delivery charges for the resident? He says that decision will be left up to the partners. Wing won’t charge for deliveries services during its trials.
Compiled and edited by Paul R. Bergeron III with sources including The Verge, The Washington Post, Vox, West Fargo Pioneer