Self-Flying Drones Make Aerial Deliveries Simple — And It's Just the Beginning

Self-flying drones from a variety of companies make it easier for businesses to offer aerial shipping to customers in a handful of lucky neighborhoods. What's next?

Delivery from the store to your door in 3 minutes. That’s the future of shopping.

In the northern suburbs of Dallas, Wing is testing drone delivery service with a fleet of autonomous, styrofoam aircraft. The drones can carry around three pounds and fly 12 miles round trip without a pilot. What’s more impressive, the entire delivery system (the charging pads, drones, and the necessary cables) can fit neatly into a 20-foot shipping container and sent to any business, allowing merchants to offer aerial shipping to their customers the next day.

It means a handful of north Texas neighborhoods can buy small items from a local Walgreens and have it delivered in their backyard in less than 10 minutes, for no extra fee. It’s like a care package from Call of Duty or The Hunger Games. It’s an impressive preview of what’s coming.

To understand how it all works, I caught up with Sally French. She’s been reporting exclusively on drone technology for the past five years on her page The Drone Girl. We talked about the latest self-flying drones and what it’s going to take to bring airdrop service to more people in the U.S.

Portions of this interview have been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

Peter Hull: We’ve been hearing about drone delivery in the U.S. since 2013. What’s going on? Is it ever going to happen?

Sally French: Right now we are seeing a number of small scale drone delivery tests and there are many big players in the market working on this. Wing is a huge one; Wing is a sister company of Google. And we all know Amazon is working on it too and now we're seeing a lot of other companies that maybe people haven't heard of — Zipline, Wingcopter, Flytrex are a few of them — and these companies are doing small scale tests. They'll be operating in maybe one city and even in one city they might just be operating in a one-mile radius. And we are seeing tests where real humans are getting drone deliveries. So just a normal person like you and I, if we happen to live in that one mile radius of a city in, say, North Carolina where they're doing the test, we can actually get items delivered. 

I live in San Francisco and there are no drone deliveries happening there. So on a broader scale, it is very unlikely that you will see wide ranging drone deliveries for at least a couple of years, unless you're lucky enough to live in one of these areas.

PH: You mentioned Zipline who recently announced some new tech that sounds like they’re giving drones the ability to use echolocation, kinda like bats. What’s that about?

SF: Some really exciting developments in [drone] tech. Zipline is one of the major drone delivery companies and they recently announced a new obstacle avoidance system that is acoustic based. Obstacle avoidance is really important because drones don't have a pilot onboard. And so you would think a normal pilot might see another plane coming and knows what to do, but a drone can't necessarily see it from human eyes, so they need some sort of sensor to act as their eyes. A lot of drones have visual sensors that can see another object in the way and they are smart enough to then navigate around that object, whether it's a moving object like another plane or a building or a tree. What's really interesting about Zipline is that theirs is an acoustic-based obstacle detection system. 

But by and large, the visual-based sensors work really well, and the tech is largely there. For example, if Wing wanted to operate drone deliveries tomorrow, outside of the regulatory challenges, they almost certainly could.

PH: I know Zipline does work outside the U.S. Are other governments more drone-friendly than ours?

SF: Companies like Zipline are focusing on doing medical deliveries. They're delivering vaccines, they're delivering emergency medical supplies. And Zipline has seen a lot of success in developing countries as well. So in the U.S, drone delivery is largely being targeted at suburban areas and you know maybe you save on traffic, you're a parent with kids and you can't drive and put your kids in the car seat to go get pizza, it's much easier to have it delivered by a drone. But what Zipline has largely been doing is going to developing countries, rural areas where there truly is a need. So there might not be a wide availability of medical facilities. So purely for that standpoint alone, it's really worthwhile. 

The other thing is developing countries might not have the infrastructure for an ambulance to go through quickly. They might not actually have helicopter services the way [we do] in the U.S. And so Zipline has really found this need. You figure someone needs a vaccine immediately, and they live in a rural village that maybe is only 20 miles away as the crow flies. But because of the roads, it is going to take two, three hours to get there. That's where Zipline is really seeing this niche and they've grown really well. 

The other great thing about working in these developing countries is that there is less regulation there because there is such a need. It kind of has this thought process: In the US we don't want that crash, we don't want that risk. But in other countries, they don't want to risk someone not getting the vaccine or not getting some medical treatment that could save their life. So we've seen a lot of countries being more amenable to bringing in drones, kind of no matter what. In the U.S. we are seeing this focus more on safety first and then bringing the drones in later.

PH: How do we scale up delivery service in the U.S? What’s next?

SF: We expect to see the next FAA reauthorization revision in 2023. And so that's really not that far away and I can see some exciting progress being made in that arena next year. So that really gives me a lot of hope. The other thing is that we are seeing ongoing tests happening and they're growing. A lot of these companies like Zipline and Wing are operating under what's called the FAA Beyond program. So in that program, the FAA has established a different public-private partnership. So a private company like Wing could partner with a public entity, whether it's a Department of Transportation or a state, and they're able to conduct wider scale tests that are actually implemented among the general public. Those tests are ongoing. And within those tests, we're seeing a lot of really exciting developments where drones are getting approval to do bigger and better things. 

And actually, in June 2022, Zipline is actually the fourth operator to receive what's called a Part 135 certificate, which authorizes it to operate as an air carrier so they can actually deliver packages in the U.S. We're seeing more and more of those approvals happening and so that to me is progress because as soon as we have more approvals, the more companies we test, we have more data to allow other companies to come into this space.