In mid-July, a UPS subsidiary called Flight Forward and the drone company Matternet started a project with the Wake Forest Baptist Health system in North Carolina. The companies’ aims are decidedly futuristic: to ferry specialty medicines and protective equipment between two of the system’s facilities, less than a half-mile apart. Think of it: little flying machines, zipping about at speeds up to 43 mph, bearing the goods to heal.
At this point, though, the drone operations are a little, well, human. The quadcopters must be operated by specialized drone pilots, who must pass a challenging aeronautical knowledge test to get their licenses. And they must be observed during every moment of their journey by (appropriately named) visual observers stationed along the route, who must view the drones, without binoculars, to ensure that the things won’t crash into anything else in the sky.
For a cutting-edge tech, it’s pretty low-tech. Or, as Matternet CEO Andreas Raptopoulos puts it, with the tact of someone whose business model depends on still-in-development regulations, “not scalable.” In Switzerland, where Matternet has worked with the Swiss Post to complete over 3,000 flights transporting medical samples, drones are monitored remotely from an operations center near Zurich.
Despite the challenges, the promise of US drone deliveries is attracting some big players. This week, Amazon received a Federal Aviation Administration certificate to begin its own drone deliveries, making it the third company after UPS and Alphabet’s Wing subsidiary to do so. Amazon also has drone development centers in the UK, Austria, France, and Israel. The company didn’t respond to questions about when and where it might start testing its flying delivery machines, but executives have made clear that they see drones as part of a strategy to deliver packages more quickly. The tech may have other benefits, too: Drones are battery-powered, and don’t spew emissions like a delivery van. Nor do they clog up roads.
These tiny flyers are going to fill the skies, transforming entire industries for the better—and worse.
Elsewhere in the country, UPS and Matternet are operating in a Raleigh medical facility and a retirement facility in Florida, where it delivers prescriptions. Wing delivers pastries, FedEx packages, first aid kits, and, during the pandemic, library books to homes in a southwestern Virginia town. (Wing also operates in Australia and Finland.) Delivery startup Zipline, which has for three years transported blood and plasma transfusions and samples in Rwanda and Tanzania, now flies PPE in North Carolina.
Despite all the experimentation and official paperwork, getting your next Prime order or burrito by drone is likely years off. There are three big reasons: The government needs to write rules. The companies need to find business models. And no one even knows if anyone wants their burritos by drone.
Companies itching to expand delivery drone operations have a few big items on their FAA wishlist. They’d like the government to set out rules for flying over people and at night. (Right now, each flight is approved on a case-by-case basis.) And they’d like a streamlined process for commercial operations. In theory, the FAA is set to roll out a final set of drone rules in 2024. But industry observers expect delays.
Because of that drawn-out process—the FAA calls it “crawl, walk, run”—the drone delivery business today favors big companies like Amazon and Alphabet, which can invest in years of development, testing, and lobbying without generating any revenue. “That’s a difficult long game to play, and it’s benefiting the existing players,” says Gregory McNeal, the cofounder of the startup AirMap, which creates tech to monitor and automate drones flights. He’s also a professor of law and policy at Pepperdine University.
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Amazon’s record already shows drones are easier said than done. CEO Jeff Bezos first promised half-hour drone deliveries in 2013. When the company introduced its new drone design in June 2019, executives said that some Prime customers would receive flying packages “within months.” David Carbon, a former Boeing executive, has since taken charge of the company’s drone program.
That suggests a longer timeline for everyday deliveries like toilet paper and socks. That the first drone delivery experiments have focused on business-to-business deliveries in healthcare isn’t an accident. It’s where the money is, and where drones’ speed can really count. “We’re not just trying to solve logistics costs, but other costs,” says Raptopoulos, the Matternet CEO, whose latest collaboration with UPS in Winston-Salem transports speciality medicines and PPE. He cites the example of a specialized MRI machine part, which could be needed for a repair. If the hospital doesn’t have the working machine for a day, it can lose tens of thousands of dollars. A drone delivery—especially in a place with bad roads or terrible traffic—might save it time and money. (Matternet was forced to shut its Swiss operation between August 2019 and January 2020 to review safety operations after two drone crashes, neither of which hurt anyone.)
Then there’s the question of whether Amazon customers even want flying Prime deliveries. A toothbrush in 15 minutes sounds nice, especially when you’ve knocked yours behind the toilet. But are you willing to have a drone land on your lawn, or buzz by your apartment, to make the system go? And how will the neighbors feel?
The Australian government asked those questions too late, after it launched an experiment in 2018 with Wing. Residents of Bonython, near Canberra, complained the drones were loud—like an “F1 car a couple of blocks away,” or “the whine of a dentist’s drill overhead while enjoying the solitude of the bush,” according to reports gathered in a government inquiry, They said the drones violated their privacy. And they worried that a mishap might drop a load of prescriptions on someone’s head. The federal aviation department, which had insisted it was not responsible for regulating aircraft noise, decided it would keep tabs on drone whines as a result of the outcry.
In the US, authorities still have plenty of similar work to do, says McNeal. “The federal government has been deficient in empowering state and local governments to welcome drones into communities,” he says. “On the community acceptance front, there is more work to be done.”
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