Is Drone Delivery Dead?

For a while it seemed that drones would be taking over the world of shipping — dropping packages from the sky all day long. In 2013, Jeff Bezos, founder of Amazon, claimed that deliveries by drones would be commonplace within five years. Now six years later, the hype about drones being a common mode of delivery has died down, with no large commercial carriers using them for even a small portion of their deliveries.

Why Not?

While it was thought that drones may be the next technology to make deliveries easier, there have been several reasons why they have not taken off (no pun intended). Government regulations, concerns for safety and privacy, and technological complications have prevented drones from becoming a more popular way of delivering packages.

Resistance from residents has also played a role in the delay. In a December 2018 Pew Research Center survey, 54 percent of Americans do not approve of drones flying near homes and 34 percent want their use to be limited. Only 11 percent of respondents approve drone usage without limits. Privacy concerns and noise from the drones were cited as reasons for disapproval.

In the U.S., regulators will need to decide if drone companies can have autonomous systems where one pilot oversees multiple aircraft and whether the drones can fly out of sight of the pilot. Until this decision is made, drones will not be used for deliveries. Current regulations also do not allow multiple drones to be operated by one single pilot, which makes the solution less practical for scaling.

This does not mean new and interesting things are not happening with the technology around the world. Wing is a drone-delivery company (owned by Google) that is able to have multiple drones operating at once. Wing’s drones can now travel up to 12 miles round trip and are being tested on different continents, such as in Australia where one pilot can operate up to 20 drones at once. The drone is also able to fly horizontally with miniature propellers for maximum speeds. Wing is one of the companies that have been chosen to participate in a test program in Virginia. The company will be testing the delivery of consumer goods and food.

Testing, Testing

Test programs around the world are attempting to prove that the use of drones is safe and efficient. Several companies are distributing blood by drone in places like Rwanda. And an Australian company is utilizing drones to dispense vaccines and other medicine on some small Pacific islands.

Amazon’s program was not selected for the FAA’s pilot program, but it is participating in the EU’s test of deliveries by drone in Belgium. Notably, both Wing and Uber are also part of the test. The FAA is testing drone innovation, safety, privacy, and environmental impact to determine when drone delivery can be rolled out on a broader basis.

While testing continues at national and state levels, it appears that it will still be a few years before drones are allowed to make deliveries, especially at a scale to make the delivery mode commercially viable.

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