Delivery Drones: A Birth in Waiting

I first wrote about drones almost 8 years ago in a post titled, “Drones – The Birth Of A New Transportation Mode.” Here is how I concluded the post:

I believe we’re witnessing the birth of a new transportation mode, one that will take many years to develop and mature (but will probably happen sooner than we think), and one that will make our current discussions about driverless cars and same-day delivery sound silly in retrospect. Aside from 3D printing and teleportation (if it ever happens), drones have the greatest potential to truly transform the way we transport goods.

A couple of years later, in July 2015, the first drone delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) was conducted in rural Virginia (see “A Kitty Hawk Moment In Drone Delivery?”). A drone operated by Australian drone startup Flirtey delivered 24 packages of medicines to a remote health clinic in Wise County, Virginia. It took the drone 3 minutes to make the journey, which typically takes a car 90 minutes over bumpy roads. 

Fast forward another 5+ years to last week, when as reported by Andy Pasztor and Katy Stech Ferek in the Wall Street Journal, the FAA “approved the first fully automated commercial drone flights, granting a small Massachusetts-based company permission to operate drones without hands-on piloting or direct observation by human controllers or observers.” According to the authors, “The FAA’s decision, after four years of testing across eight states, is expected to quickly open up additional opportunities for larger-scale testing as well as some fledgling new commercial markets eyed by the fast-growing drone industry.”

In other drone-related news from last week, Pizza Hut has teamed up with Dragontail Systems Ltd to deliver pizzas in Israel. As reported by Katie Deighton in the Wall Street Journal, “Instead of flying pizzas directly to customers’ homes, the company this June plans to test sending drones to drop multiple orders at government-approved landing zones, such as designated spaces in parking lots. Delivery drivers will collect orders from these makeshift drone ports and take them on the final leg to customers.”

And earlier this month, as reported by Josh Spires in Drone DJ, “Verizon’s Skyward and UPS Flight Forward have announced they will be working together to bring drone delivery to The Villages in Florida [an adult retirement community with a population of more than 77,000]. The drones will use Verzion’s 4G and 5G networks, running on Skywards’ drone management platform.”

In the animal world, elephants have the longest gestation period of mammals, carrying their young for almost two years before giving birth. The development and birth of a new transportation mode — whether it’s drones, autonomous trucks, or hyperloop — is taking much longer. Which new mode, if any, will reach critical mass first? How much longer do we have to wait?

Things happen for a reason, and in their own time,” says the actress Idina Menzel. I’m sure she wasn’t thinking about new transportation modes when she said this, but the quote fits.

And so we wait.