Separating fiction from feasibility in the future of drone delivery
From donuts to life-saving anti-venom, drone delivery draws attention to what the technology might look like in a few short years. While the full potential of drones extends beyond transport, there’s little doubt that the fledgling technology will turn consumer package delivery upside down.
As production of both commercial and personal drones continues to rise, global revenue is expected to increase 34 percent to more than $6 billion in 2017, according to research firm Gartner. Almost three million drones will be produced in 2017 — 39 percent more than in 2016.
“The commercial and personal drone markets are increasingly overlapping, as lower-priced personal devices are being used for commercial ventures,” said Gerald Van Hoy, senior research analyst at Gartner. “Personal drone vendors are now aggressively trying to position themselves in the commercial market. Recent technological advances blur the lines, allowing personal drones to be used in many special-purpose applications such as surveillance, 3D mapping and modeling.”
Indeed, commercial and consumer use cases frequently overlap. This means both are held back by similar technical problems. Delivery might be a small piece of the puzzle, but it’s a crucial piece for engineers to get right before drones hit their stride.
With this in mind, I’ve collected a few tech announcements and patent filings from recent years to reveal what problems for delivery drones the industry is trying to solve — and what we’re doing to get there.
Technology: From point A to B
The basic technology that powers delivery drones has come a long way, but it isn’t ready yet. Companies like Amazon, Flirtey and Zipline are currently leading the pack, with a plethora of delivery solutions to various logistical problems.
Last year, the tech giant Amazon famously patented a flying warehouse to dispatch drones from the sky. This solution would cut down on fuel costs by ensuring that each individual drone would only have to glide downward, instead of fighting gravity to climb into airspace. Individual drones could be collected via a shuttle once a batch of deliveries is complete.
In 2017, Amazon has continued to push the boundaries of what delivery drones can do. One recent patent proposes a hive-like fulfillment center for drones. These multi-layered warehouses will be optimized for urban areas, occupying less land than the company’s current single-story buildings.
Another patent suggests deliveries by parachute, which would decrease the risk of drones colliding with children, pets or backyard furniture. Of course, dropping packages safely from the sky is a challenge in itself. The proposed drones would be able to monitor packages mid-flight and adjust off-course deliveries by deploying compressed air, landing flaps or secondary parachutes. San Francisco-based Zipline is already delivering by parachute medicine to remote hospitals throughout Rwanda. But given that they operate in a country with minimal infrastructure and air traffic, we’re not likely to see them maneuver in dense urban areas anytime soon.
Purely technical challenges aren’t the only obstacles the industry will have to overcome.
Other developments include drones with legs and a safety feature to disable propellers when they’re near a foreign object. These patents reveal a deep concern for safety, both for the drone itself and anything with which it might collide. Preemptively developing safety features will likely pay dividends when it comes time to push for legislative support.
Amazon isn’t the only tech giant with its hat in the ring. IBM was recently granted a patent for airborne drone-to-drone delivery. This technology will help drones deliver packages within a wider range from the warehouse by leveraging other airborne drones. Customers also could dispatch personal drones to collect parcels from delivery drones instead of leaving the package unguarded at their doorstep.
Combined, these tech developments bring us closer to full-fledged drone delivery. But purely technical challenges aren’t the only obstacles the industry will have to overcome.
Airspace traffic control: With freedom to fly
Traffic control is at once a technical and regulatory issue. If drones are to reach their full potential, we will need a sophisticated traffic management system to prevent collisions. Drones will inevitably have to share airspace with passenger jets, military planes and other aircraft; airspace safety is a bigger regulatory challenge than the last mile of package delivery.
In contrast with today’s air traffic management towers, some predict that airspace traffic control of the future will be autonomous. The sheer volume of aircraft necessitates automated tracking of drones. NASA is currently working with drone industry leaders to develop such a system, with a projected deadline of 2025. Despite progress, it will take years to research and implement a solution.
Weather poses a significant challenge for drone traffic control. In one field test conducted by NASA and industry partners, several drones were blown more than 100 feet outside their flight paths, forcing them out of their designated operating zones. Weather is especially challenging because drones generally fly closer to the ground, making them more susceptible to weather changes.
Tracking and managing large fleets of drones poses its own challenges. Alphabet is reportedly working on its own traffic management system, which aims to demonstrate how a single operator could safely manage multiple drones in the same airspace without manual steering. Other planned features include real-time route planning, weather notifications and FAA no-fly zone alerts.
The specifics of large-scale drone operations remain a mystery to consumers.
Meanwhile, drone detection is as vital a challenge as drone management. To enforce traffic control laws, airports and other airspace controllers need the ability to detect independent drones that aren’t in their system. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been carrying out such tests at DFW airport. The goal is to prevent rogue drone operators from violating airspace regulations, intentionally or otherwise.
AirMap, a Santa Monica, Calif.-based company, is already starting to address traffic safety and management with an airspace management platform for drones. The company is already supporting more than 100,000 drone flights per day. Continually in development, the software today allows drone pilots to plot a flight path, digitally notify airports in the area, view manned (and soon unmanned) air traffic in real time and avoid temporary and permanently restricted airspace.
Trust: From regulators to customers
The last obstacle the drone industry will have to overcome is trust.
To begin with, earning the ear (and goodwill) of regulators demands a demonstrable commitment to public safety. This means more data, more third-party validation and more edge cases covered. The industry will need more research to get the sign-off from regulators on autonomous flights.
Yet it may be equally challenging to earn the trust of customers. Like any new technology, the specifics of large-scale drone operations remain a mystery to consumers. If industry leaders aren’t 100 percent sure of how drones will work in society, it’s no surprise the average consumer still views the tech with healthy skepticism.
It will take time and effort to win the trust of potential customers. More flights are required to make the public aware of this new technology. Right now, consumer drones cause concern for some bystanders — imagine the chaos a fleet would cause.
Fortunately, the same data and research that goes into earning regulatory approval will also help win the public’s trust. Consumer drones must first reach a critical mass of usage to let the tech spread beyond early adopters.
What lies ahead for delivery drones?
There are more than a few obstacles the drone industry will have to sense and avoid in the next few years, but several major tech companies are well on their way. Solving the delivery problem is the first step to diversifying what drones are capable of. Once we’ve established new airspace control systems and the tech reaches a given usability threshold, the floodgates will be opened to countless new use cases.
The one thing the industry doesn’t need is more customer demand. The potential is clear: People are ready to embrace just-in-time living.