When will drone deliveries be a reality?

The capabilities of drones to deliver packages to our doorstep is ever increasing. Indeed, it is highly likely that drones will be a part of how we receive goods in the future. However, before this becomes a part of daily life there remain significant challenges for both commercial and medical drones including, safety, cost, regulation and the drop off process. Read on to discover at what stage both commercial and medical drone deliveries are.

Commercial Drones & regulation

We have previously covered in a post that commercial drone deliveries are starting to become a reality, with Google’s spin off project Wing being given the Federal Aviation’s Administrations (FAA) first certification for drone deliveries in April 2019. And with UPS, Uber Eats and Amazon Air also seeking permission from the FAA to operate their own extensive network of commercial drones in the U.S., the companies could soon be allowed to fly drones over highly populated areas, out of the line of sight of professional operators and at night.

Under U.S. federal law, drones are considered aircrafts, meaning that they must adhere to the same highly restricted air space regulations as planes. Wing, for example, was given approval to start commercial drone deliveries after fulfilling many of the safety requirements of a traditional airline, including a safety card.

Without FAA approval, drones cannot be flown outside of an operator’s line of sight and are not allowed to accept any form of payment for their services. As a result, widespread commercial testing has not even begun. What’s more, getting initial approval from the FAA is only the first step in a long regulatory process. With this initial FAA license, Wing can only begin a commercial drone delivery trial in a small geographic location (Blacksburg and Christiansburg, Virginia). Once a successful trial has taken place, companies will then have to apply for the FAA’s permission again to expand into other regions.

In Canberra, Australia, Wing was also given approval to use drones to deliver products from local coffee shops after 18 months of tests, 70,000 flights and 3000 trial deliveries. However, more widespread use is hindered by the fact these drones cannot cross main roads, must stay away from people and customers must have a safety briefing before receiving any deliveries. Again, even with these regulations in place to start commercial deliveries, the process is in its very early stages. In terms of regular drone deliveries, there remains a big difference between a few drones flying predetermined routes, during the day, under ideal weather conditions and potentially hundreds of drones all operating in the same general area in a variety of conditions.

As the regulatory infrastructure for commercial drone delivery networks has only just begun, companies have only recently begun to think about other logistics that will have to accompany commercial drone deliveries. These include safety procedures, training for staff and how much to charge for delivery. Only when regulation, logistics and reliability are fully established will customers see regular packages being delivered by drones.

Medical Drones

Compared to commercial drone deliveries, medical drone deliveries are moving forward at a much faster pace. One of the reasons is that medical drone deliveries are often flown over rural areas, which reduces the likelihood of collisions and noise pollution for residents.

In 2016, California-based company Zipline began to deliver blood samples to remote locations in Rwanda by drone. The trial was so successful that in 2018 the company went on to sign a $12 million deal with the government of Ghana to create the world’s largest vaccine drone delivery network. In a country like Ghana, where the roads are not always reliable, medical drone deliveries have huge potential to help an estimated 22 million people. The service is capable of up to 600 daily flights to over 2000 health care facilities across the country, and health workers can place an order via text message. Their fastest drone can fly 99 miles and operate in heavy winds and rain, meaning it is much more robust than a commercial drone.

The benefits of using drones to save lives, quash outbreaks of diseases, or in a humanitarian crisis, provide huge opportunities for companies and emergency services to reduce costs and be more efficient. It is for this reason that they have been more widely accepted by governments and the general public, and why drone deliveries in healthcare are at a latter testing stage than commercial counterparts.

While medical drone deliveries have come a long way, there remain challenges that are currently delaying adoption on a wider scale. In particular, medicines, blood and organs must be kept at a certain temperature during transport and anyone working with the packages must be properly trained to ensure the journey and landing of the products are smooth.

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