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The Drone-Delivery Bandwagon

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As they say, better late than never. But when it comes to delivery, “better never late” is even better. Last mile delivery woes are common and may be frustrating. When Amazon unveiled its Prime Air drone delivery project in 2013, everyone was excited. Since then, it sets off a ripple effect across the retails and logistics industries. Different phases of trials and demonstrations are going on. Some are successful, some are not. New plans and projects are on the way as well. Drone delivery seems to be the future of e-commerce fulfillment, and its potential is undoubtedly appealing. But the gap between expectations and reality always remains.

Efforts and progress of the players in 2020

Among the past test flights and demonstrations, we have seen a wide range of delivered items. The items include medical supplies, food, groceries, books, and even mails. The recent pandemic has increased the demand for contactless delivery. Subsequently, this drives the application of drones as humanitarian aid to fight COVID-19.

Japan Airlines (JAL)

On August 31, JAL announced its participation in the Tokyo Metropolitan Government’s drone logistics business development project. This involves the feasibility study of delivering pharmaceuticals, food, and security services in Tokyo. The project will end in March 2022. The consortium of specialists behind the study includes KDDI Corp, East Japan Railway, Weathernews, and Terra Drone Corp. They are seeing the potential of drone delivery to address the impact of COVID-19. These participating companies also mentioned that it is necessary to respond to changes in the current logistics industry. JAL made another announcement of its partnership with Matternet in the following month. The project involves the adoption of Matternet M2 Drone system to deliver prescription pharmaceuticals, medical supplies, and blood in Tokyo.

Matternet M2 Drone Platform

Zipline

In May, Zipline had been working with Novant Health to deliver medical supplies and personal protective equipment to North Carolina. The delivery will start from Novant Health’s emergency drone fulfilment centre in Kannapolis to its medical centre in Huntersville. This is where the frontline medical personnel are treating COVID-19 patients. Zipline claimed this to be the first emergency drone logistics operation in aiding the battle of COVID-19. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) had stated this collaboration as its first approved long-range unmanned delivery service in the USA.

Drones are loaded in a special warehouse and goods are dropped via parachute.

UPS and CVS

In April, both companies rolled out their plan to deliver medical prescriptions to a retirement community in Florida. This new measure is to cope with the state’s stay-at-home order. The delivery project involves both drones (Matternet M2 Drone system) and trucks. After the drone has dropped off prescriptions to a place near the community, a truck will deliver them to the residents’ doorsteps. This drone delivery started in early May with authorization from the FAA. Around 135,000 residents of the community will benefit from this project and receive their medications.  UPS mentioned that they are expanding their drone services and reach out to those who are in need during the pandemic.

Source: UPS

What the experts say

COVID-19 is somehow a catalyst for the progress of drone delivery. There will be more similar tests and trials, according to drone industry analyst, Michael Blades.  And with 20,000 drones carrying out retail deliveries today, Gartner predicts it to exceed one million in 2026. The mobility and transportation industries must rethink their business and operational models to stay competitive. The advisory firm suggests companies take COVID-19 as an opportunity to start doing drone delivery.

Are the barriers crumbling down?

The route to commercialization is never easy for drone delivery. There are piles of issues – public acceptance, liability, safety, infrastructures and technical aspects, economic viability, and regulatory. Regulatory is always one of the major hurdles to the mass deployment of delivery drones. Moreover, different countries have their own sets of regulations. Take FAA regulations as an example. There are multiple restrictions on drone’s maximum altitude, operation time, operation site, visual line-of-sight, and so on. Nevertheless, reforms and modifications of regulations are going on. The most significant regulatory development is the rollout of unmanned traffic management (UTM) systems. Integration of UTM into the existing National Airspace System (NAS) is the key point. But these processes do not happen overnight. New proposed rules will take years to finalize, such as the FAA proposed UAS Remote Identification rule in 2019.

Slow but maturing

So near, yet so far. This is the current stage of drone delivery. Routine autonomous drone flights at a commercial scale will hardly be possible before 2025, according to Gartner. The speed of innovation is too fast for the cautious and risk-averse aviation industry to catch up. But this is exactly what makes the airspace a safe place for everyone. With the recent FAA’s approval granted for Amazon, this new disruptive technology moves another significant step forward.

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