Drones for Delivery : Flying Your Way Soon


We’ve been hearing about drones for delivery for the past three years or so. In the beginning it seemed that the challenges were insurmountable—no toy drone could run for longer than twelve minutes and they’re difficult to learn to fly. How can it be possible that they could carry a payload, and how could they be approved to fly in most major cities?

Yet we’ve watched as Amazon has found a solution for many of the problems of delivery by drone. It seems each month they get closer to making this a reality. And not to be outdone, Google and Walmart also want to have a drone delivery service too.

The main barriers for many companies appear to be the privacy and safety of drone delivery. How can the safety of people, pets, and property be protected, when the drones will be self-flying, without pilots? And since the drones most likely will be equipped with cameras and sensors, how will the privacy of people be protected? Drones could potentially record footage on people’s private property or inside their homes. They could even record sensitive personal information in fronts of the windows of hospitals, clinics, or corporations.

Many people believe that all the hype about delivery drones is merely marketing, yet if you have a closer look, drones for delivery are a closer reality than many may think. It’s important to be aware of their capabilities, as likely cities may soon begin council meetings on whether to approve the business licences of some of these new drone companies that wish to provide delivery services in their cities.

Drones for Delivery: The Challenges of Drone Delivery

The FAA is the regulatory body in the USA who governs the laws of air traffic control. Each country will have a similar agency. Right now, it’s not legal to fly anything but toy drones on your own property, or in larger fields. Drones must never enter air space, and even the neighbours may complain if they’re flown onto private property. Civil, national, and military organizations must also follow rules about flying drones in public or private air space. Drones must also adhere to a set height, as beyond that is official air space. Rules may vary country by country, but are often very similar.

According to FAA regulations, drones must not be flown higher than 400 feet, and they must always be kept within sight of a person’s eyes. There should be no blind flying, such as may occur with a radio controller with screen. Already you can begin to see that there may be a problem with delivery drones. Drones for delivery  would need to be excused from certain FAA rules.

Drones for Delivery: Amazon’s Drone Delivery System Almost Ready to Fly

Amazon announced in the news last year that it wanted to use drones to deliver packages in thirty minutes. Since they’re one of the largest retailers in the world, they’ve announced that they want to have better control of their delivery system. They’re also known for the automated technology of their huge warehouses that are fully automated and robotic, and staff has been cut down to the minimum. It’s also a hectic mode of work—employees who are performing below standard are fired.

Amazon will operate their system under their Prime Air category, which is a premium shopping service that offers more to consumers.

For the millions of people who order products on Amazon, it can be exciting to hear about how you can have your books, small appliances, and clothing delivered right to your door by drone. Obviously, the size of products must fit in the standard Amazon box, so don’t expect to have refrigerators or stoves ever delivered by drones.

Amazon had to develop their own special flying drones, as no current toy model on the market exists for this purpose. They began by developing the drone to deliver a plastic box to a home. Since there was no way to collect these plastic boxes easily, they modified their drones to carry a standard cardboard box. Apparently about 86% of the orders that Amazon gets will actually fit into the standard Amazon-sized boxes: 9.25 x 6.5 x 2.25; 10.25 x 7 x 2.25.

Distance was also a factor. The drone has to pick up the specific box, fly out of the Amazon warehouse, then fly directly to the home where it must deliver the package. Obviously this service will only be available to Amazon buyers who live within thirty minutes of an Amazon fulfillment center. While Amazon is building more centers, right now most of them are located in the larger cities across the world.

For testing purposes, a lot of the details are being kept under wraps, but for certain Amazon has been testing  drones for delivery in the USA and Canada, the UK, and the Netherlands. There is no current model name listed for the Amazon drones yet, but they have been created by Amazon engineers and not any of the toy drone companies. They have been worked on the engineering of these drones in the USA and Israel.

Now that Amazon has met the challenges of battery life, distance, weight, and accuracy, their final challenge remains as to how to have their drones for delivery approved city by city.

Drones for Delivery: Google’s Drone Delivery Service at the Patent Stage

Not to be outdone by a competitor, Google also has been developing its own type of drone delivery services. Google is attempting to solve the problems that Amazon still faces. These problems can vary from takeout food delivery to apartment dwellers who have no lawn space for the Amazon target—a landing pad that is set up in advance. This landing pad is mailed to the Amazon consumer in advance. It allows the drones to land down on it to deliver the package.

It’s unknown if these landing pads will have any sort of GPS chip in them to help the drones to spot their location. This could potentially be yet another barrier to the delivery services, should they choose to go this route.

Google calls their venture Project Wing. The drones do not have any actual model names listed yet. They’re developing their drones under the Alphabet Inc. company and likely not with any other toy drone manufacturer.

Apparently Google has some ideas. They’ve already begun patenting methods. They have been working on solving the uncertainties of a drone landing in an exact space, releasing packages, and taking off again.

One of their ideas involves avoiding the landing problem entirely. Instead, the delivery drone will reach the address as close as they can get, hover in place, and then slowly lower packages to the ground through a tether. Its sensors will tell when the package has dropped to the ground. It will then detach and retract the tether cable. The drone will then return to base and repeat the delivery process.

Google has also created an additional feature in these drones. Obviously humans will initially be curious when they see a delivery drone in action. Their drones will actually talk to people. It’s a lot like the technology of those talking car alarms that warn you to stay back.

Google’s drones will call out to people nearby. It may talk to the person who is waiting for the package, or tell pedestrians nearby to watch out. It may say “stay back” until it has dropped the package, released the tether, and is ready to fly back to headquarters again.

These Google drones will also have warning lights a lot like the toy drones have LED running lights. These lights can change from green to yellow to red. The green light can indicate when it is safe to retrieve your package from beneath the hovering drone.

Drones for Delivery: Walmart’s Drones for Delivery in Testing Phase

Like Amazon, Walmart also has a large proportion of online orders that must be delivered through the mail. Last year, they decided that they also wanted delivery drones too. Late last year, they applied to the FAA for permission to test their own version of a home delivery drone. These drones will also be used for curb side pickup—supposedly for returned goods—and also for checking warehouse inventories more easily.

Drones for Delivery

Photo by Walter / CC BY 2.0

They began by testing their drones inside their own warehouses—a practice that requires no special approvals or licenses. Now that they’ve succeeded in designed a drone and created the drone mechanics needed for package delivery, they now want to use these drone machines outdoors. The drones will be used to deliver packages to Walmart stores, facilities, and even homes. They also think they’d be great for increasing the efficiency of the supply chain from warehouse to store.

Walmart also has the distinction of having a store within five miles of about seventy percent of the US population. That will trump Amazon’s promise of thirty minute delivery, with Walmart accomplishing their task in less than ten minutes in any direction.

Walmart will be using drones that have been made in China by the DJI Technology company, rather than attempting to hire their own engineering team to figure it out, such as Google or Amazon have done.

Drones for Delivery: The Caveats of Delivery Drones

Currently, it is illegal to use commercial drones in the USA, Canada, and almost all other countries that have any sort of airspace governing organization. In order for companies to get permission for testing, they must get FAA permission to do so.

Testing is essential in working out the problems. Safety would likely be the number one issue, as well as preventing lawsuits, and public or organizational privacy.

Our imaginations can begun to run wild as we imagine drones for delivery flying through our skies and dropping packages. In most cases, we can see how things could go wrong. Drone delivery service could be used by criminals to deliver drugs, stolen goods, or even bombs. It’s possible that they could be hacked to do purposes that they are not intended for.

Mid-air collisions may also be an issue. What if they connect with a toy drone that has few sensors, or trees, or pets and children? There is the potential for injury and property damage.

Amazon, Walmart, and Google may have to expect that they may lose or have some of their  drones for delivery damaged. How will this affect the cost of drone delivery? Will the cost of products increase substantially?

Drones for Delivery: A Drone Delivery Dystopian Future

Is it possible that we’re headed to a future where the robots tell us what to do? Will robots replace teachers, police, employees, and the military? We already have law officials overstepping their bounds, so what happens when we have to fight robots too? Right now Google’s talking drones idea is merely in the patent phase so hopefully this future is far ahead. Amazon and Walmart are a lot further ahead with their non-talking delivery drones.

Drones for Delivery: Medical Drone Delivery Services Could Be Utilized First

People in the western countries may be skeptical of drone delivery service, yet one small country in southern Africa has already successfully tested drone delivery services in Lesotho. Lesotho is a tiny country that is landlocked by the country of South Africa. Matternet is a drone delivery network that has been successfully run in Lesotho and other countries around the world.

Matternet was the company who was responsible for delivering survival supplies and chocolate in Haiti after they had their bad 2010 earthquake. After this successful feat, they needed a place where they could test their drone network, which ended up being Lesotho.

In Lesotho, poverty is high, and about a quarter of the population has HIV/AIDS. Paved roads are scarce, even in the city, making the transport of goods difficult. Matternet began by delivering blood samples from clinics to hospitals where they could be tested. Since blood samples are so small, and yet they are time-sensitive, they made the perfect cargo. The drones flew automatically, without any human pilot, and they also were able to return automatically to a landing area to be recharged.

Apparently it takes one of the Matternet drones about fifteen minutes to carry a cargo load of 4.4 pounds to a distance of 6.2 miles. The total area covered by the Matternet drone ending up covering an area the size of Manhattan, New York. The delivery service ended up costing only 24 cents on average for each delivery. This cost savings is incredible, and can’t even be compared to the expensive services of helicopters or planes. It’s unknown whether the full drone blood test delivery service will be implemented between all clinics and hospitals in Lesotho later this year.

Matternet has also done field trials in the Dominican Republic. It seems that countries may be more open to delivery drones when they’re delivering essential medical supplies, tests, and relief packages.

Drones for Delivery: Successful USA Drone Delivery Test of Medical Goods

In July last year, severe storms and flooding occurred in rural regions of Virginia. Over 3000 people lined up for medical care at the medical center. Roads were completely blocked, making it impossible to drive supplies in. Drone delivery was the best solution, and did not require the finding of helicopter or pilot, nor potential expense, when drones could be sent in for cheap.

It’s not just consumer products that are being tested for delivery in the USA. The company Flirtey is a UAV-focussed delivery company that had a successful test launch of one of its services. They arranged for a drone to deliver medications to a medical center in Virginia, USA. Flirtey has the distinction of being the first company in the USA to fly FAA-approved delivery flights.

Similar to what Google has in the works, Flirtey used a drone that had a tether that slowly dropped the supplies down to the ground. This tether was 3D printed on a 3D printer.

Drones for Delivery: FAA Registration of Drone Flights

Since there have already been some successful drone delivery flights, one common thread is that the drone company has had to first register their flight plans with the FAA.

If this is the case, what is the feasibility of a consumer products company such as Amazon or Walmart having their daily delivery flights approved? Will they need to have each flight approved by a central “air drone traffic control center”?

And its certain that the FAA will be more likely to approve those flights that involve medication or other essential hospital supplies, or emergency kits to areas of the USA that have undergone disasters.

Perhaps big box companies will be limited to package delivery for only a few hours a day, one or two days a week.

Drones for Delivery: The Future of Drone Deliveries

It’s estimated that in two years’ time, there will be one or two companies who will be approved to conduct their drone delivery services. But whether it will occur in a densely populated area, or suburban city will remain to be seen. One thing’s for certain, once it happens, other big box stores will also want to jump onboard.

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