On October 20, 2019, Wing, a subsidiary of American multinational conglomerate Alphabet Inc., began the most advanced trials of commercial drone delivery in the US yet in Christiansburg, Virginia. Residents can now use a smartphone app to order items from Wing partners such as pharmacy giant Walgreens and local specialty chocolate and popcorn retailer Sugar Magnolia. A Wing drone will pick up the order and gently lower the package with the help of a tether outside the customer's door within an hour!
Though Wing is the first American company to receive Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) approval to use commercial drones as a widespread service, it is not the only one. On October 22, 2019, multinational package delivery company UPS, which has also received FAA approval for its drone fleet, announced it would soon begin trial deliveries of prescriptions and other goods from retail and health care company CVS. Meanwhile, ridesharing company Uber, which has partnered with McDonald's, hopes to dispatch its drones to deliver food to hungry customers in San Diego, CA, before the end of 2019. Amazon also plans on testing its long touted "Prime Air" service in a yet-to-be-determined location in the upcoming months.
While every company's drones can carry packages weighing up to five pounds, their design and delivery mechanisms differ widely. The Wing drone's airplane-like wings are fitted with propellers, which enable it to fly longer distances on less fuel. The autonomous aircraft has a maximum speed of 70 miles per hour and can travel up to 12 miles in under 10 minutes. The Wing drone bypasses the challenge of finding a suitable landing area by using a tether to lower the package to the ground. Upon landing, the goods are automatically unclipped and the drone returns to the closest warehouse to pick up its next delivery.
Amazon's hexagonal drone is designed to seamlessly switch between a vertical helicopter-like mode and a horizontal airplane mode. It can fly up to 15 miles roundtrip and complete deliveries within 30 minutes or less. The drone is designed to carry packages in a closed compartment that opens once it is firmly on the ground.
Uber's delivery drone is not as fast as those of its competitors. It also has a limited flying range and is currently designed to land atop the vehicle of an Uber Eats driver, who will be responsible for delivering the food to the customer.
Though the flurry of trials is encouraging, widespread drone delivery still has many challenges. These include infrastructure issues like finding places for drones to land, reducing noise pollution, and even ensuring the drones don't collide with each other while airborne.
To help speed up the process, on October 29, 2019, NASA announced the Urban Air Mobility Grand Challenge. The competition challenges prospective airspace service providers to find innovative solutions to the issues, so that drone deliveries can become a reality soon. "We are moving fast," said NASA AdministratorJim Bridenstine. "We want to see by 2028 at least one city — maybe more than one — have the ability to control hundreds of unmanned aerial systems. They could be carrying cargo or could be carrying people, doing thousands of missions every day."
If NASA's vision for drones is realized, it will not only help drastically cut down delivery times but also reduce carbon footprint of the large delivery trucks. Wing CEO James Ryan Burgess says, “We’re looking at trends in cities including congestion and environmental sustainability… We see drone deliveries as a key part of solutions to these.”
Resources: Wallstreetjournal.com,cnbc.com, techxplore.com