How the drone delivery case spread beyond parcels
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Daniel Silva recalls being an Amazon intern in the summer of 2014, months after founder Jeff Bezos unveiled the company’s plans for drone delivery service via Amazon Prime Air.
“At the time, it looked like we were going to start seeing drones delivering packages within a year,” said Silva, now professor of industrial and systems engineering at Auburn University.
Still, progress has been slow, even for a company of Amazon’s stature. In 2016, Prime Air successfully completed its first drone delivery, which took place in the UK. Last year, it received Federal Aviation Administration clearance for the delivery of drones to a rural test area. Drones carrying packages have yet to fill the skies.
“We are actively flying and testing and it will take time and hard work before our operations are ready to scale,” Amazon said on its Prime Air website. “We are excited about this technology and one day we are using it to deliver packages to customers around the world in 30 minutes or less.”
Silva attributed its slower-than-expected growth to the FAA’s careful regulatory process. But as the agency works on approvals for safe deliveries beyond the operator’s line of sight, other logistics use cases for drones outside of large-scale B2C deliveries are being tested and deployed. . The COVID-19 pandemic has only underscored their value.
“Online orders have experienced an incredible boom over the past year and a half due to COVID-19,” said Yariv Bash, co-founder and CEO of Flytrex. “With that you see interesting and better on-demand delivery services because the current options are just not good enough.”
Today, the possibilities offered by drones in last mile logistics range from delivering still hot coffee in a suburban backyard to transporting vital health commodities in an urban environment. Research is also exploring their potential to bring items to delivery drivers on their routes. These cases show that drones have not replaced the delivery van. Rather, they slowly take over the less efficient types of last mile deliveries.
Fast and on-demand delivery in the suburbs
When Flytrex launched in 2013, the company designed and manufactured GPS trackers for drones. But the company realized three years later “that the killer app for drones is going to be drone delivery,” Bash said.
Flytrex therefore focused on B2C deliveries. Today, its drones operate from stations located in two shopping malls in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Autonomous drones deliver from downtown stores – including Walmart – to customers in surrounding suburbs who can order through Flytrex’s phone app.
The drones can carry up to 6.6 pounds and perform five mile round trips, according to the company’s website. These specifications make them best suited for delivering food, drink, or light essentials. Transit times are essential for the delivery of food to prevent it from losing the desired temperature.
“Online orders have experienced an incredible boom over the past year and a half due to COVID-19. With this, you see interesting and better on-demand delivery services because the current options are just not good enough. “
Co-founder and CEO of Flytrex
“Once it takes off, in three to four minutes your dinner will be in your backyard,” Bash said, adding that the back or front yard is the perfect place for a “slow and very safe delivery”.
Flytrex was able to expand its service to cover more than 2,000 homes after obtaining a permit from the FAA in May 2021 to fly over people. Its end goal is to make drone deliveries 10 times more affordable than human courier deliveries, Bash said. The lack of population density in suburban areas makes on-demand delivery “insanely expensive” and difficult to optimize for other modes of transport, he added.
To achieve this, Flytrex needs more business. Earlier this year, a Flytrex spokesperson said the company expects to make hundreds of deliveries each week with the expansion of Fayetteville.
“The goal is to increase the volume of each of our stations,” said Bash. “The more deliveries we make from one of these locations, the more affordable it becomes for everyone.”
Medical deliveries in urban settings
While Flytrex focuses on suburban food deliveries, Matternet initially targets the transport of high-value health products in urban areas, where traffic jams are a problem for urgent deliveries by ground transport.
Matternet’s drones are part of the company’s end-to-end delivery offering, said Jon Michaeli, the company’s global sales and business development manager.
There are also the Matternet stations, in which payloads are deposited and inserted into the drones. Finally, there is the company’s software platform that generates routes and controls all Matternet assets.
“So you don’t have that hub and spoke, you really have an on-demand multi-directional service where a drone sits at your doorstep and you can use it to carry cargo within that fixed range,” Michaeli said.
In November 2020, it launched operations at a hospital laboratory in Germany to help deliver diagnostic samples to its facilities.
In the United States, regulations and drone delivery approvals are progressing at a slower rate than expected, Michaeli said. Matternet therefore intentionally chose to focus on obtaining FAA type certification for its aircraft. This meant that the company had to find a partner authorized by the FAA to operate a delivery of drones via part 135 air carrier certification.
Matternet found this partner in UPS Flight Forward, allowing it to focus on “what we do best, which is our technology,” said Michaeli. UPS uses a Matternet M2 drone to deliver COVID-19 vaccines to Atrium Health Wake Forest Baptist in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.
Although Part 135 certified companies like UPS have the operational approvals to handle drone deliveries, Matternet’s technological expertise is not something companies easily duplicate internally, Michaeli said.
“We’re not just standard hardware,” said Michaeli. “The secret sauce is really in the software, and you have to protect it from things like hacking and hijacking your plane. We have our proprietary software that shows us the plane and the data streams coming from various locations. C is quite an operation – the software, the hardware and then the operational know-how. “
Replenishment of vans on rural delivery routes
At Auburn University, Silva and her fellow industrial and systems engineering professor Alice Smith conducted test missions to see how drones could help make the rural delivery process more efficient.
One use case they tested has a drone resupplying a delivery van with medication for patients along the van’s route. The process makes medical deliveries more cost effective and faster in rural environments, the professors said, making those deliveries a more feasible use case for drones in the short term.
“The idea of the drone going to people who have never seen one and never interacted with one, and it will know what to do, is neat, but I think that’s where we are the most. far from reality, ”said Silva.
Field testing is still in its early stages, but Smith noted that battery life needs to improve for drones to be adopted more for rural deliveries.
“We’re doing things where drones don’t come out in the long run,” Smith said. “In other words, our models assume distances that are now technically available. With battery improvements, that would open up more research and more implementations to reach more rural environments further afield.”
The tests have already prompted Smith and Silva to continue researching how a drone works in a large distribution center or warehouse.
Silva expects a drone to be involved in a few years at some point in the delivery process, it may not place the order to the customer due to line-of-sight regulations which currently limit larger scale applications. Instead, it could be moving goods to a warehouse or scanning inventory, Silva said.
“I think drones will play a role, but it wouldn’t necessarily be everyone’s first idea, who brings the package home,” Silva said.
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