Drone delivery is getting closer, but challenges remain
Recent stories at Bloomberg and Axios show us that the promise of electric aviation is not only already here, but it’s also going to expand and grow a bit as autonomy expands into the skies. We can learn from these stories that there are challenges that need to be overcome for things like drone delivery to become a mainstream reality.
Where are the drones right now
The sad fact is that the technology is almost ready, but if you want to deliver something reliably and cheaply locally, you better call a delivery driver through common apps for that. We are simply not able to make the change.
Currently, the only thing a drone license holder can do is fly in line of sight, or in line of sight of a designated observer who can communicate with them. Not only should you be able to see the drone as a point in the sky, but you should also be able to tell which direction it is facing without using telemetry or cameras on the drone. While things like aerial inspection and real estate/architectural photography are well served by these limitations, it’s very difficult to do anything like deliveries within a radius of about a quarter mile.
Why does the FAA impose these limits on drones? Because pilots need to be able to “see and avoid” other aircraft. If you can’t see your own drone and the sky around it, it’s basically impossible to take action to avoid a collision with something like an EMS or police helicopter.
The Bloomberg The story not only gives us an idea of what it’s like to test drone deliveries under current rules, but also of ongoing efforts to improve drone delivery regulations and technology.
Wing, a company owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), uses drones to make small deliveries in Christiansburg, Virginia. Not only does it have a pilot at the controls at the launch/landing site, but it also has a spotter on a nearby hill watching the drones from above. So FAA rules are still followed and the designated pilot can take over or force an emergency landing if things get potentially dangerous. But, drones are mostly automated.
There’s only one reason it works: they don’t have to share the sky with anyone in that community. A drone operator might show up and take pictures of a house, or a medical helicopter might occasionally come by, but there aren’t hordes of autonomous drones run by different companies buzzing through the skies making deliveries and perform other business services independently. There is also no functioning eVTOL autonomous aircraft like there will be at some point.
So regulators need to understand how this is all going to work without tragedy or injury becoming normal.
The Axios The story tells us about some drone delivery trials in Walmart stores. Two stores in northwest Arkansas have deliveries underway, with a small folding tower for the observer to view the drones. Due to FAA limitations, deliveries are only available within one mile of Walmart locations.
But, they still come in handy. Deliveries cost $3.99, can weigh up to five pounds, and are available from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m. Walmart partner DroneUp plans to offer more delivery options in the future in several states, including Florida, Virginia, Utah, Texas and Arizona.
How the FAA and NASA are heading into the future here
The challenges of creating technology that can safely operate hand-operated drones, automated drones, eVTOL craft and anything in the sky together are many. Drones and eVTOL craft, all made by different companies running different hardware and software, all need to be able to communicate. Thousands or millions of craft will quickly go beyond something like today’s air traffic control, with humans following a limited number of planes flown by other humans over wide areas.
Right now, NASA and the FAA are running computer simulations trying to figure out what such a busy air environment might even look like. This will not only indicate what technological requirements must be met to manage it, but also give insight into what the regulations governing this busy world might look like.
As it stands, unmanned drones are likely to operate below 400 feet, while air taxis and passenger drones will be between 500 and 5,000 feet. Away from cities with large airports, most traditional passenger and cargo aircraft would try to operate above 5,000 feet to make room for taxis below. This would allow at least some segregation in air traffic to increase safety.
But even these separate spaces could quickly become crowded. Different layers of distance above the ground should probably be assigned to different types of gear and virtual pathways created for safe travel. Also, priority should go to major deliveries and public safety work over things like meals and someone who wants a beer.
Another issue addressed by the article was what was going to be socially acceptable. It sucks when you’re out partying or working Friday night only to have a diligent neighbor start weeding at 7 a.m. Will we accept that noisy propellers pass above our heads at all hours? Can we make them quieter? Will some people hate seeing things in the sky all the time?
It worked well in Christianburg, and people really liked having the drone delivery option available during the worst of the pandemic, but how it works elsewhere is an open question.
why it matters
It seems easy at first glance to simply say, “Hang a box off the bottom of a drone and send it somewhere”, but we have a lot to consider before doing that. Will it be safe? Will it be affordable? Will people like it? Will it bother too many people? How can I be sure that all the previous questions are the correct ones?
Thus, the tests continue and we will probably find our way to the right answers. But there will still be a wait.
Image selected by DJI.
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