Back in 2013, Jeff Bezos, CEO of Amazon, was interviewed on 60 Minutes. One of the topics of interest during the conversation was when Amazon would begin using their new octocopters to make deliveries.
Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air
Bezos’ prediction? That by 2018, Amazon would be able to deliver items weighing up to five pounds within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon warehouse.
Well, 2018 just came and went, and Amazon isn’t quite there yet.
That being said, we did see some real progress made on the drone delivery front here in the U.S. in 2018, which came in the form of the creation of the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP).
The UAS IPP is a federal program created to allow states to test to various types of drone flights that are otherwise prohibited by the FAA’s Part 107 rules—operations such as flying BVLOS, or flying over people.
Some of the pilot programs selected for the UAS IPP will be testing drone delivery—Airbus, Matternet, Flytrex, Project Wing, and Zipline were among those that made the cut—and we can hope to see positive movement forward on the drone delivery front in 2019 as a result of their findings.
But beyond the UAS IPP, what was accomplished in 2018 when it comes to making drone deliveries a reality?
In this post we’ll take a look at how much progress was made for both commercial and medical drone delivery in 2018, and then look forward to what we might expect to see in 2019.
Commercial Drone Delivery
2017 was the first year we really started to see progress in commercial drone deliveries.
Most notably, Flytrex launched commercial drone deliveries in Iceland, and Project Wing delivered burritos in Australia. Although both efforts were limited, they served as symbols of real steps forward being made.
This is all to say that, when it came to drone delivery, we entered 2018 full of hope.
But unfortunately 2018 did not deliver. While we continued to see progress in terms of testing and the announcement of new delivery programs last year, when it came to the implementation of new commercial drone delivery programs, things just did not move very far forward.
Photo credit: Flytrex
Here are some 2018 highlights for commercial drone delivery:
In April, Chinese company SF Express, the second-largest courier in China, received the first official permit from China’s Civil Aviation Authority to deliver packages by drone.
This news first broke back in April of 2018. Based on our research, it doesn’t seem like SF Express has actually started conducting commercial drone deliveries since then.
In June, AirBus announced plans to begin using drones in Singapore to test shore-to-ship deliveries.
Since the news broke, it does not appear that actual drone delivery operations have begun.
In September, Flytrex announced that it would be making food deliveries by drone in North Dakota.
In December, Project Wing announced that they would start making drone deliveries in Finland in the spring of 2019.
As you can see, although commercial drone delivery was approved for testing in several places in 2018, the only news about a new commercial drone delivery operation that was actually implemented was Flytrex’s food delivery program in North Dakota.
Medical Drone Delivery
Although commercial drone delivery has proceeded in fits and starts, medical drone delivery has been moving forward at a fast clip over the last few years, with Zipline and Matternet leading the pack.
One primary reason medical drone delivery has been able to move forward more quickly than commercial drone delivery is because medical deliveries usually take place in rural areas, where there are less concerns about collisions.
Let’s take a closer look at what happened on the medical delivery front in 2018.
Zipline has been on the forefront of medical drone delivery for a while now. Much of their work is done in Africa, where they’ve developed systems to transport blood and other medical supplies to remote areas.
Photo credit: Zipline
In 2018, Zipline had some key announcements on the medical delivery front:
- In April, Zipline made the news for release of the world’s “fastest delivery drone,” a fixed-wing autonomous drone that can fly 99 miles, go up to 75 mph, carry about four pounds, and operate in heavy winds, rain, and high altitudes.
- In November, Zipline announced plans to build a drone delivery plant in Rwanda, with the goal of expanding their medical deliveries to more hospitals
- In December, the government of Ghana signed a $12 million dollar deal with Zipline for the design, installation, and operation of UAVs for medical deliveries within the country.
In addition to the above, in 2018 Zipline was selected to participate in the UAS Integration Pilot Program (UAS IPP).
[This program] is an important first step towards bringing Zipline’s lifesaving drone delivery technology to the United States.
– Keller Rinaudo, CEO of Zipline
2018 was also a big year for Matternet.
Photo credit: Matternet
They continued to expand their medical drone delivery presence in Switzerland while also honing their technology, and implementing one of the first autonomous delivery networks there.
In addition to their continued accomplishments in Switzerland, where the company is based, Matternet was one of the companies selected for the UAS IPP, and has begun testing medical drone deliveries in partnership with the state of North Carolina.
Depending on the outcome of the pilot, Matternet could be on track to be one of the go-to companies when it comes to providing drones for medical delivery solutions in the U.S. and elsewhere—with Zipline acting as their stiffest competition, of course.
It’s important to note that both Matternet and Zipline have not confined themselves solely to medical deliveries. Both companies have taken steps to use the technology they’ve already developed to cross over into commercial drone deliveries, and we can expect to see them as contenders in the commercial drone delivery space in the coming years.
Note: The commercial and medical drone delivery companies we have decided to include here are not meant to be exhaustive. There are other companies involved in drone deliveries, but these are the ones who we think really pushed things forward in 2018.
Waivers Granted in 2018 that Could Bode Well for Drone Delivery
On the waiver front, the news from 2018 that could directly impact the viability of drone deliveries in the U.S. was about the noticeable uptick in BVLOS waivers granted by the FAA.
Photo credit: Avitas Systems
In order for drone deliveries to become an everyday phenomenon, drones will have to be flown BVLOS, almost definitely without a direct Visual Observer. In 2018, the FAA granted a slew of BVLOS waivers, as well as first-of-their-kind waivers that included BVLOS operations.
Here are just a few, to give you an idea:
- Xcel Energy received a BVLOS waiver for inspections in Colorado
- Airobotics received a first-of-its-kind waiver to fly autonomous missions BVLOS and over people without a direct visual observer
- GE’s Avitas Systems was granted a first-of-its-kind waiver to fly a 55+ pound drone BVLOS
The above are all companies actively using their waivers for the work they do (such as Xcel Energy, who conducts regular BVLOS inspections of their power lines).
When we look at drone delivery companies who received BVLOS waivers in 2018, but presumably aren’t using them for anything beyond testing just yet, we see some more interesting data points:
- Zipline International (2 BVLOS waivers in 2018)
- Matternet (1 BVLOS waiver in 2018)
- Project Wing (2 BVLOS waivers in 2018)
To put all of this in perspective, of the 29 BVLOS waivers the FAA has ever granted, 17 were given out in 2018. Which is all to say that, as far as the BVLOS piece of drone deliveries goes, the FAA appears to be getting more and more open to those kinds of operations.
[Want to see all the BVLOS waivers the FAA has granted? Go to this page on the FAA’s website and search “107.31”.]
Drone Delivery in 2019
Although all of these BVLOS waivers are a good sign, we’re not holding our breath about when we’ll actually see Jeff Bezo’s 2013 vision become a reality here in the U.S.
Why? Here are the main three reasons:
1. Technological challenges
Packaging will need to be made uniform, with some kind of uniform payload delivery station, and we have yet to see viable prototypes on the market that satisfy these aspects of the delivery process. Battery life is also still an issue. As Frank Appel, the CEO of DHL’s parent company, Deutsche Post, has put it: “If you have to recharge them every other hour, then you need so many drones and you have to orchestrate that. So good luck with that.”
2. Regulatory challenges
Although we expect the outcomes of the UAS Integration Pilot Program to be helpful in nudging drone deliveries forward, right now it looks like most of the information the pilot programs gather will help with medical drone deliveries to more rural areas, and may not be so helpful—at least in the short term—for commercial drone deliveries. In addition, the continuing growth of state and local drone regulations will post a challenge to making universal drone deliveries in the U.S. a reality.
As Colin Snow of the Drone Analyst pointed out recently, the ROI for making deliveries via drone instead of other methods still seems shaky.
Photo credit: Amazon Prime Air
All of this being said, drone deliveries are definitely on the rise, and in 2019 we’re sure to see more and more deliveries being made by drone.
But the lingering question is about when we’ll actually see a drone fly up to our door, deliver a package, and fly away into the sky.
While that day may be far off, medical drone deliveries and specific instances of commercial drone deliveries made of certain goods in certain areas—such as Flytrex’s program in North Dakota—are sure to continue growing.
What do you think? Do you agree that daily commercial drone deliveries are still a ways off (at least here in the U.S.), or do you think we’ll see them coming soon? Chime in on this thread in the UAV Coach community forum to share your thoughts.
A writer with professional experience in education technology and digital marketing, Zacc Dukowitz is passionate about reporting on the drone industry at a time when UAVs can help us live better lives. Zacc also holds the rank of nidan in Aikido, a Japanese martial art, and is a widely published fiction writer. Zacc has an MFA from the University of Florida and a BA from St. John’s College. Follow @zaccdukowitz or check out zaccdukowitz.com to read his work.