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Part 1: Commercial/Public use
Drone delivery has been on the horizon for a few years now, and while some have thought of it as an interesting idea, others have felt that it wasn’t likely to work for one reason or another. I recently finished reading an article that enlightened me on a start-up company that has been using the technology since 2011, but unfortunately, not able to in the US. It’s a California based Aerospace company that delivers medical supplies and specimens in other countries. Matternet seems to be the current leader of the drone delivery industry.
Matternet believes that there are some very important uses for drones based on their current delivery experience. Sending blood samples by drones has proved to be more cost efficient, and saves both time and energy. Drones don’t rely on a person to drive them and won’t get stuck in traffic. They eliminate the risk of delivering items in hazardous areas or for disaster relief.
Delivery is on hold in the US for companies like Amazon or Google X who intend to deliver merchandise. Walmart is also making plans to use drones, but currently not sure of the best application for them yet. FAA Regulation has not ironed out all the rules and legalities for a pre-approved exemption called Section 333 . It was supposed to be ready by 2012, but is now delayed until June 2016. It has been a slow process, but there are currently 6 regions in the country being used for test sites to see how drones work in different climates, terrain, and uses.
Since 2013, NASA’s Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Traffic Management program has been building a database telling drone operators where trees, mountains, buildings and other objects are located, to help them avoid collisions. Verizon even became part of the project to help drones avoid phone towers. There have been some doubts about the FAA creating low-altitude traffic control; alone, that might be true. With the creation of their Pathfinder Program working on operations beyond a user’s line of sight, and a partnership with CNN, BNSF Railway and Precision Hawk, they are getting there. CNN is interested in safely gathering news in populated areas, BNSF wants to use drones for railway inspection, and Precision Hawk is focused on uses in agriculture.
Businesses in line to use this technology are getting anxious. You might be wondering why they see it as a much needed innovation. The following are arguments against drone delivery:
Drones can only carry small, light-weight packages
Matternet’s drones only need to hold up to 2.2 pounds. This is not a big problem considering a company like Amazon has never intended to deliver heavy appliances or furniture. In fact, 86% of their items for delivery are 5 pounds or less. It will be used more as an express delivery for items needed right away. An Australian drone company, Flirtey’s, currently has a model that can fly 20 miles on one battery and carry 5.5 pounds.
Items being delivered by drone could be stolen
Thieves steal items from the store, packages delivered by truck, and right off your front porch. Retailers have been factoring the cost of theft into their purchase prices for a long time. This is not a new problem. They will likely target drones too. Matternet can shut drones down remotely in case of theft of the actual device.
Drones can’t fly very far or for very long
Amazon’s drones can fly 15 miles and they are working to go farther, however, they expect most residential and retail deliveries to be within 20 miles of their fulfillment centers for same day delivery. They also believe that retail stores may be operating their own drones for local delivery. Walmart says it’s testing a drone that flies for 25 minutes and the majority of their customers live within 5 miles of their stores. Matternet’s drones can travel 10 miles, up to 40 mph, and a 10-mile journey should be about 18 minutes.
There are safety issues with drones flying in urban areas
Drone operators can’t always see all the places their drone goes and rely on cameras and GPS coordinates. The FAA has not made it legal to fly one out of the operators’ line of sight, but that is coming soon. Matterhorn’s models can account for hills, trees and buildings, won’t fly in restricted airspace like airports and government secured areas, and avoid schools and public squares. They generally try to fly in as straight a line as possible, but will take other routes to avoid higher populated areas.
Matternet gets around many of these concerns in other countries using a smart phone app to choose a destination and generate a route. The drone takes off without a remote controller and can only fly to another pre-approved, sensor-equipped landing pad. They are designed to land instead of dropping the package, shut off their propellers so the item can be safely retrieved, and a new package or battery can be exchanged so it can fly again. In the event of bad weather, the drones won’t take off. If the drone fails, a parachute deploys.
There are great reasons to explore the use of drone delivery and there are also reasons to question it. They aren’t currently proven to be reliable in certain weather conditions like rain, they are limited currently to 25 minutes of battery life, and maybe the public is not ready for it.
According to a recent National survey conducted in 2014, support for drone usage comes from different public sectors.
- Search and Rescue Operations in remote areas such as finding missing and injured persons, tops the list with 93% approval.
- Climatic and Geological Mapping like testing snow, water, or vegetation levels comes in at 87%.
- Military Operations including detection and tracking of military targets comes in at 73%.
- Traffic Monitoring on major highway routes to report things like back-ups and delays, is 71%.
- International Border Patrol to monitor immigration activities is at 68%.
- Journalists’ reporting and covering news events like natural disasters, crime scenes, and even sporting events are 56% in favor.
- Detecting Criminal activities in Open public places like street-level drug dealing are at 48%.
- Crowd monitoring at major public events comes in at 43%.
- Only 42% of Americans say they support delivery drones being used for bringing small items to private residences
Society is beginning to get used to seeing technology triumph over doubt and indifference. Rest assured that all pilots, professional and enthusiast, will be required to be licensed to fly drones and be issued a registration number to put on their drone. But right now, non-commercial use is completely legal with no license.
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Other photo sources: Drone Life, Drone Law
Miethe, T.D., Lieberman, J.D., Skiyama, M., Troshynski, E.I. 2014. Public Attitudes about Aerial Drone Activities: Results of a National Survey, https://www.unlv.edu/sites/default/files/page_files/27/PublicAttitudesAboutAerialDroneActivities.pdf
French, S. 2015. Drone Delivery is Already Here and it Works,
French, S. 2015. 6 Myths about Amazon Prime Air and Drone Delivery Debunked,