A surge in online shopping sprung up over the past year due to the pandemic. The rapid adoption pushed the expected timeline for consumers to expand their online shopping forays. It also opened the door to a drone delivery industry to feed a growing demand for increased online deliveries.
Companies scrambling to compete with the advancing delivery capabilities offered by Amazon and UPS are looking to drone delivery options. Will this be the future of delivery?
Aviation is an extremely regulated environment — drones or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) included. So, what does this mean in terms of safety within the airspace? Will the FAA create special allowances for drones that permit them to fly with autonomy to deliver packages faster than ground delivery?
Perhaps, in the long run. But do not expect to see your online purchases dropping from the sky anytime soon, cautions aviation safety expert Mark Baier, CEO of AviationManuals and ARC Safety Management Software Systems. It will not be easy.
TechNewsWorld sought Baier’s insights on the implications of the future of drone delivery in terms of aviation safety. Obviously, if federal regulations offer greater latitude to drone deliveries, that accommodation could be a boon to e-commerce.
Hopeful Buzz in the Air
The two concepts — drone safety and the impact of drones on e-commerce — are related, Baier noted. Both topics have created a lot of buzz around the potential of drone delivery probably for the last five or six years.
All of that buzz has not converted to reality yet. Some of the safety issues have not really been addressed or resolved.
“That’s a big step. First of all, I want to say drone delivery, in my opinion, is a virtual certainty. It is just a matter of time and on what scale and how the rollout will look,” he told TechNewsWorld.
Most people envision drone delivery is going to be like the sci-fi that we all have in mind of drones landing in our front yards filled with our packages. More so, people in the industry tend to see it as a far more gradual phase-in process.
Perhaps it will be a blended approach for some time before we get really dedicated drone services for a wider variety of things. Baier thinks the one hurdle that was kind of moved out of the way recently was a decision by the FAA about where to stick commercial drone operations.
More Regulated Than Not
The FAA, for a long while, was split between drone operations being allowed under general aviation rules or abiding as part of aviation’s Part 135 rather than Part 121 regulations. The difference is significant.
Part 121 deals with commercial air service for scheduled flights with paying passengers or customers. Part 135 regulates on-demand flights and scheduled charter flights. Scheduled charter flights are usually limited to a few days a week.
“So that does mean that delivery drones are going to be more regulated perhaps than some of the drone industry accounted for. But at least now they have a roadmap on which to follow, explained Baier.
The FAA had to include some exemptions because those regulations are designed for passenger travel and passenger carriage. Of course, you can follow the standardizations and the safety management system pipe fit standards and protocols for commercial operators. But exemptions had to take into account existing rules related to just passenger travel and passengers with airports.
We are seeing 100 years’ worth of manned flight regulations and learning. Baier thinks we are going to see over the next couple of years the FAA trying to find some middle ground so that drone rules are not just layering an existing though slightly more onerous regulatory process on top of something that is probably different in its own category.
Getting Deeper Into Drone Delivery Potential
TechNewsWorld engaged Baier in an extensive conversation about how — and if — drone regulations and consumer lust for speedy airdrop service will ever safely coexist.
TechNewsWorld: How competitive is the drone certification process under the Part 135 regulations?
Mark Baier: Five operators that have applied for this Part 135 certificate thus far have received permission to operate drone deliveries. But it is really still very, very specific, very limited, with one drone operator involved. One certification is only for medical deliveries to a particular hospital in North Carolina.
Another applicant is Flirtey, a transport freight service in Nevada. That company has not yet received certification. If approved, much of that drone’s travel will be over open spaces and farmland.
A third company is delivering medical supplies pretty effectively to rural and remote areas. A fourth approved drone delivery service is for a company called Google Wings. I’m not exactly sure what they are going to be doing.
[Editor’s Note: Wing (pictured above) is a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Also known as Project Wing, it is currently offering trial delivery to parts of Christiansburg, Va.]
The fourth approved drone delivery service of the five applicants is Amazon Prime, according to Baier.
Are some industries more economically viable to support drone deliveries?
Baier: The medical industry is certain to accelerate looking at drone usage for probably anything from plasma to organs, but even something as benign as insulin delivery to somebody that may not be on a typical delivery route. I think the medical industry is really at the forefront of driving some of this because they are also able to get more exemptions from a regulatory perspective.
One thing people need to understand at this point is that it is not an economically viable way to deliver packages. It probably will not be for some time. The drones are not as reliable as surface vehicles, so a lot of them are not outfitted with equipment. Hence, in bad weather, you probably have to revert at this stage to road transportation. So the cost-effectiveness of package delivery is probably in some ways down the road.
The companies that are looking into doing drone deliveries have the financial wherewithal to plow ahead. I also think in some industries where cost is not an issue — where time is more important than cost — you might see drones start to come into play.
How difficult are drone operations on a reliable basis?
Baier: Commercial drone operations are difficult, even if they cost a lot of money. So I think the general package drone delivery thing is probably still a ways away. But to your point, I believe Covid-19 and other factors are driving it ahead faster now than it probably would have happened pre-Covid.
How much of an impact on drone flying is the weight of packages?
Baier: There is a technology limitation and a cost limitation right now. From what I understand, the FAA is talking about package weight being limited to four pounds. But there is a strange little quirk to that. The drone comes and hovers about 20 feet above your property and actually lowers the package with a tether instead of landing and dropping it.
I think that involves safety, privacy, and security issues they have not yet figured out. Those proximity issues involve avoiding pads, kids, etc., so they prefer to keep the drone hovering and 20 feet. They lower the package, and then they fly off so that again restricts the amount of weight that you can carry.
In terms of drone operations, do the pilots fly them from fixed locations, or are GPS systems onboard for automated deliveries?
Baier: Right now, drones are operated by people. The only difference with delivery drones is putting navigational equipment in place so you can operate beyond line of sight. It is instrument-enhanced, but there still are operators behind the flight controls; none of it is fully automated yet.
Some of the drones have geofencing and built-in protection mechanisms that are automated. If you lose contact with the drone, it will geofence itself or hover until you can find it.
Is it accurate to draw a parallel between the logistics involved in drone delivery and self-driving automobiles?
Baier: We definitely are looking at two different things. Ground vehicles need a lot more sensors because of the obstacles on the ground. But I think it is also this factor of drones being operated according to slightly more traditional aviation regulations at this point. The two systems might one day both be fully automated. That is a very high probability, but that is a way down the road.
What are other potential barriers for drones flying off the ground?
Baier: People forget that this may be regulated down to 4,400 feet by the FAA. Once you get below that level, you may see a layered patchwork of local, state, and county-level regulations that end up being blended with the FAA. So you may see drone deliveries happening quicker in one place than in another just because the local regulations are going to be different.
Much more depth and complications exist for drone considerations than for an aircraft that is flying in the airspace between airports per se. You are also still going to have privacy issues below 400 feet to address with drones. There will be some liability and legal issues in that regard.
How does drone licensing work?
Baier: Drone operators are now expected to operate according to higher standards. The licensing process is actually a certificate for that particular operator. Imagine that UPS is going to have a drone division. That division would be completely separate from its own operating license. The company running the drone would report directly to the FAA or its local Flight Standards District Offices (FSDO) office.
Two licenses would not be needed. UPS would be the parent company. The certification for the drone operation would go to its divisional office.