It was nearly four years ago when 7-Eleven announced it completed the first autonomous drone delivery in the U.S. A few months later, Amazon’s Prime Air completed its first drone delivery in England. And while Amazon executive Jeff Wilke said he expected drone deliveries in the U.S. “within months” of June 2019, we’re still not there.
When asked about the status of its drone delivery program, Amazon said in a statement “there are no shortcuts” and it has “made great progress” toward fulfilling customer orders in 30 minutes or less. It did not comment further.
Chinese ecommerce platform JD.com arguably has the most advanced drone delivery network in the world, with seven types of drones and over 100 routes in rural parts of China. We’ve also seen drone delivery in Australia, Finland and Rwanda, but executions in the U.S. remain nascent.
In October 2019, Wing Aviation, the air delivery subsidiary of Google parent Alphabet, announced a partnership with FedEx, Walgreens and a local retailer to make deliveries to customers in Christiansburg, Va. A Wing spokesperson said the trial “will continue into 2020” and is Wing’s only U.S. test run. (The spokesperson declined to comment on expansion plans.)
In the same month, UPS announced a partnership with CVS Pharmacy. In November, it completed two prescription deliveries in Cary, N.C.
Blake Roberts of drone news site Dronesvilla said 2020 will be another year for drone testing. “There’s so much that can go wrong here that it will need to be watertight before it can be rolled out across entire countries,” he said.
Chris Perry, vp of global education at data analysis firm Edge by Ascential, also said to expect more trials in 2020. “It would appear that we’re still some years away from it becoming an active fulfillment offering nationwide due to the regulatory hurdles on the national, state and local levels,” he said.
By far the biggest challenge is regulatory approval from the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration, which says its Part 135 certification is the only way for drones to carry another’s property for compensation.
UPS received the first full Part 135 standard certification in October 2019 and Wing has a Part 135 single-pilot air carrier certificate. In addition to Wing and UPS, the FAA said it is working on six additional Part 135 air carrier certificate applications.
“The FAA is stringent about controlling the airspace. There’s a security aspect to prevent terrorist attacks and [promote] safety on the ground,” said futurist speaker, researcher and author Nikolas Badminton. “[Drone delivery is] still a pipe dream in urban centers like New York or Chicago or Toronto, but you’re seeing it in more rural scenarios.”
One thing that could pave the way for more deliveries is the FAA’s proposed rule for remote identification, which seeks to collect identity, location and altitude data from drones so it can recognize all unmanned aircraft.
Bala Ganesh, vp of the advanced technology group at UPS, said regulators will need to define additional rules for drone delivery. In addition, he said UPS will spend the next year working with the FAA on new use cases.
“It’s not only just aircraft hardware but various sensors that will help them detect other drones and other aircraft to fly safely,” Ganesh continued.
Another challenge is community acceptance, which is why Ganesh said the FAA seeks buy-in from local communities in its pilot programs.
David Glick, CTO of on-demand warehousing and fulfillment company Flexe and 20-year Amazon veteran focused on fulfillment, agreed we’ll see drone delivery go mainstream on a small scale.
“I’m skeptical we’ll see [drones] at scale. I’m also skeptical [if] we want to see it at scale,” he said. “I don’t know if I want thousands or hundreds of thousands of drones flying around.”