Whether it is for shooting professional landscapes or just flying around, drones have always been pretty exciting for a bunch of us. But the most exciting part was when retail giant Amazon decided to use it for delivering e-commerce goods. It all started in 2013 when Amazon, dropped a bombshell. They announced their ambitious plan to use drones for delivery. Amazon Prime Air was born, aiming to whisk away packages weighing up to 5 pounds within a 10-mile radius of their fulfillment centers. Talk about taking convenience to new heights! Followed by the hype, other big players wanted in on the action too. Google, never one to shy away from mind-blowing innovations, launched its own drone delivery service called Wing. UPS couldn’t sit idle, either, while drones stole the spotlight. In 2016, they teamed up with drone manufacturer Matternet to test out their delivery prowess. Other brands that jumped on the bandwagon included DHL and FedEx, where each came up with their own take on the “drone-delivery-outburst”. The sky was about to get swarmed by buzzing drones zipping through to bring people goodies. But it’s 2023 already and there is no sight of them.
While the idea of drone delivery seemed like the stuff of sci-fi dreams, reality had other plans. Amazon’s dream got tangled in a web of regulatory nightmares, while Google’s Wing got cut off as Neighborhoods were up in arms about the buzzing drones invading their airspace and disrupting the peace. One by one, each of the prominent brands that decided to take off with drone delivery service fell right back into the ground. Still, brands like Logistics startup Zipline are pushing ahead to make drone delivery a possibility by finding the most useful and cost-effective ways.
So Why is Drone Delivery Taking So Long to become mainstream? Let’s unravel the tangled web of reasons behind the slow crawl of drone delivery toward mainstream adoption.
The prime factor for which drone delivery is taking so long is aviation restrictions. The Federal Aviation Administration or FAA in the United States, for example, has established rules to ensure the safe integration of drones into the national airspace. Up until November 2022, Amazon faced strict limitations on drone flights. They were restricted to flying in sparsely populated areas, prohibited from flying over buildings or within 100 feet of them, and had to operate exclusively over property controlled by Amazon. The FAA required Amazon’s drone pilots to hold a private pilot license, which is typically required for manned aircraft. Additionally, each flight necessitated the presence of up to six individuals, including observers and ground station operators.
Drone delivery’s path to mainstream adoption faces hurdles like the FAA’s Part 107 and Part 137 regulations that govern commercial drone operations in the US. Though not directly related to delivery drones, these regulations emphasize the need for industry-specific rules, further complicating the regulatory landscape.
The FAA also imposes significant restrictions on operating drones beyond visual line of sight or also known as BVLOS. This limitation is in place to guarantee that a human operator can visually detect and avoid any potential collisions with other aircraft, thereby reducing the risk of accidents. However, the BVLOS restriction poses a significant challenge to the scalability of drone delivery services.
And then there are factors such as drone traffic control and unexpected perils of animal attacks and theft. Just like airplanes, drones need some sort of traffic management system to avoid collisions and ensure efficient operations. However, establishing an effective and scalable drone traffic control system is a complex task. There have also been cases where birds, particularly territorial raptors, have targeted drones during flight. These encounters can pose risks to both the drone and the wildlife. Additionally, the theft of delivery drones is a concern, as they can be attractive targets for opportunistic thieves. Safeguarding drones and ensuring their security during deliveries is a legitimate challenge that requires innovative solutions.
In order to be cost-effective, delivery drones need to operate autonomously, which relies on advanced computer vision and artificial intelligence systems. These technologies are essential for accurately identifying suitable landing zones. However, the challenges lie in tasks like distinguishing between a person behind or in front of a window, detecting approaching dogs, and accurately recognizing the difference between a pool and dry ground. These complexities make the development of reliable and efficient autonomous operations a demanding endeavor. There is a huge gap between making a drone automated and autonomous given at least 5 factors are met.
However, Amazon’s drone design has undergone significant advancements over the years, progressing from an octocopter with exposed rotors to a version with enclosed rotors and finally to a hybrid design capable of vertical takeoff and forward flight.
The latest iteration, the MK27-2, was unveiled in 2019 and was showcased at an Amazon event in November. This drone can reach speeds of approximately 50 miles per hour and has a width of around 5.5 feet. Without any payload, it weighs approximately 80 pounds. When encountering other aircraft during flight, the drone will navigate around them. Similarly, if a dog or any obstacle appears at the delivery location, the drone will respond accordingly to avoid any potential collision. The drone is also now much quieter, these are not expected to exceed 58 decibels, according to an FAA assessment. Despite being this advanced, the drone is still facing several limitations imposed by external factors such as Zone Constraints.
Talking about Zone constraints, it is indeed posing a significant impact in making drone delivery mainstream. Eliminating potential cities for drone delivery becomes straightforward when considering various factors. This includes harsh environmental factors such as hailstorms, heavy rain, and city landscapes that might make drone delivery a bit challenging.
Privacy & Environment Concerns
The issue of public acceptance remains a significant obstacle facing the whole drone industry. First of all, there are concerns about privacy. The biggest public pushback is What is that drone doing? It’s probably spying on me.
All the drone companies claim their cameras don’t record, or the video isn’t made available to operators. The cameras on their aircraft are just for navigation, and they just look straight down. So they can’t move around, and there’s no feedback to the operators. So they’re just used to help the plane figure out where it is. And then there’s the noise. Some residents worry drones will change the quiet, rural feel of some areas. Amazon is constantly working to improve the noise signature of the drone. And their three-blade propeller is an improvement in that category.
We also have to take into account the noise factors, which in most cases can be annoying to some. According to FAA assessment, It is expected for a drone to keep below 58 decibels, anything more than that can get a bit problematic for neighbors.
Because less face it, people completely hate the way that quadcopters and octocopters sound. It is super annoying. It sounds like an angry swarm of bees, and there is zero chance that communities are going to accept that kind of an experience like scaling up and becoming something that you have to listen to multiple times a day.
Weather remains another hindrance to consistent, reliable delivery, more so for some drone companies than others. Zipline has a proven track record overseas. They can fly in really crazy rainstorms, lightning storms, and dust storms. They claim it can fly in wind that is so strong that sometimes the aircraft is actually moving backward relative to the ground. It’s taken them seven years to harden every part of the system. Wing says its drones can operate in sustained winds above 20 knots and moderate rain. Amazon says the MK27-2 operates in clear, dry weather, and it can handle sustained winds up to 14 knots. So now Amazon is working on its next model, the MK30, meant to better handle high temperatures and rain, fly further and be lighter, smaller, and half as loud.
Gartner Hype Cycle
As it appears, the entire Drone Delivery scheme fits perfectly with Gartner Hype Cycle. At the peak of the hype, everyone was buzzing about drones delivering packages left and right. As the initial hype settled, the drone delivery scene entered what we call the “trough of disillusionment.” It’s like reaching the bottom of a steep drop on a rollercoaster, where reality hits hard with several government restrictions.
After the trough of disillusionment comes the “slope of enlightenment.” It’s like when the rollercoaster starts to climb again, but this time with newfound wisdom and understanding that brands such as Zipling came up with.
They’re taking those hard-learned lessons and pushing forward, armed with improved technology, refined regulations, and innovative solutions. They’re climbing that slope of enlightenment, fueled by determination and a desire to conquer the challenges that once seemed insurmountable. Followed by this, the Plateau of Productivity emerged where drone delivery in some cases, actually worked!
While Amazon’s drone program has faced obstacles and made little progress, other companies’ drone initiatives have started to take off, with some having already accomplished tens of thousands of commercial deliveries. Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, conducted a demonstration of drone deliveries for the FAA at a test facility in Hollister, California. During the demonstration, an impressive fleet of 37 drones operated simultaneously in the air.
Several companies, including Sweetgreen, a salad shop, a pizza chain in Seattle, a healthcare company in New York, and GNC, have joined the growing list of businesses utilizing drones for delivery services. Zipline, having achieved an impressive milestone of 40 million autonomous miles without any safety incidents, played a significant role in paving the way for certification in the United States. They even received certification from the FAA for its detect and avoid system, allowing their drones to operate beyond the range of direct human vision. This marks the first approval of an autonomous BVLOS system capable of flying over densely populated regions. Another delivery service provider, DroneUp, has partnered with Walmart and has successfully completed over 110,000 deliveries across the country. With 34 operational locations in six states, DroneUp ensures deliveries are made in under 30 minutes, prioritizing routes that minimize flight over people and moving vehicles while maximizing safety and efficiency. Walmart, in collaboration with Zipline, DroneUp, and Flytrex, has already made over 6,000 drone deliveries in seven states throughout 2022.
The Gartner Hype Cycle reminds us that despite the initial hype and subsequent disillusionment, the slope of enlightenment lies ahead. The future of drone delivery holds promise, with companies like Zipline paving the way in remote medical deliveries. So, fasten your seatbelts and keep your eyes on the sky, for the drones are coming, and they might just revolutionize the way we receive our packages in the not-too-distant future.