For years, drone delivery has been touted as the cargo transport solution of the future with profound benefits, aside from sheer convenience for consumers.
One of the biggest advantages of unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) is the potential for medical supply delivery in hard-to-reach areas. Unlike cargo planes, drones have the ability to land in remote locations without airports or roads, and for a fraction of the cost.
Commercial drones also have a far lesser chance of encountering traffic when compared to ground transportation, which could allow for more reliable, life-saving deliveries in time-sensitive scenarios.
So, when can we expect to see swarms of these unmanned aircraft flying overhead?
The Future of Drone Delivery is (Almost) Here
Early experiments using drones as a delivery system entered the public conversation in 2013 when Amazon founder Jeff Bezos announced Amazon Prime Air — a sector of the company which focuses on the rapid delivery of lightweight commercial products using UAVs.
Other companies such as Google, FedEx, and DHL began testing their own autonomous cargo drones around this time. But it wasn’t until 2016 that the first FAA-approved, autonomous drone delivery took place in an urban setting, performed by Flirtey.
The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for rules and regulations surrounding drone delivery companies and their operations, including which types of aircraft are approved for commercial transport. In 2020, the administration proposed “airworthiness criteria” for delivery drones with an intent to initialize them for commercial operations.
With the FAA’s proposal, 10 companies are currently eligible for type certification including Zipline, Wingcopter, and Amazon Prime Air. But the certification comes with a hefty price tag, which can significantly hinder profitability for manufacturers. And because the process is extremely in-depth, requiring hundreds of hours of test flights, just getting the certification can take several years.
Additionally, the FAA currently requires drone operators to keep unmanned aircraft within their visual line of sight.). However, some companies such as Amazon and Wing Aviation have obtained an exemption to this rule via a Part 135 certification, which will be necessary to make autonomous drone delivery services a reality.
With new tech designed to prevent collisions (like sense and avoid features) and the promise of pilots overseeing drones in transit, public confidence in drone delivery is only increasing. In fact, a massive investment movement is underway — with the commercial drone market set to reach over $10 billion by 2022.
It’s hard to predict exactly when the first drone delivery service will take off, though advocates argue: the sooner, the better. Drones don’t just hold the potential to make our world a more connected place on a consumer goods level, but they could also have a far-reaching social impact. A company called Elroy Air is leading the charge in bringing these exciting ideas to fruition.
The Startup Making Drone Delivery a Reality
Elroy Air, founded in 2016 by Dave Merrill and Clint Cope, isn’t your traditional commercial drone company. The duo is setting out to develop the world’s first autonomous drone capable of delivering 300 to 500 pounds of cargo over a 300-mile range — with no need for an airport or electric charging station.
Elroy Air recently announced a partnership with NASA to accelerate the integration of autonomous cargo aircraft in the U.S. Initially, the partnership will focus on addressing key safety concerns including collision avoidance and flight plan communications.
Their current model, the Chaparral, boasts a hybrid-electric powertrain and the ability for autonomous cargo loading and unloading. This allows a single pilot to operate a fleet of 10-50 UAVs from a remote location. With features like these, the Elroy Air team believes drones have the power to improve quality of life worldwide by expanding the reach of express logistics.
“Logistics is really the lifeblood of civilization, and so our mission is to enable same-day shipping to every person on the planet,” says Merrill, Elroy Air’s CEO. “That led us to make a very different kind of aircraft than anyone has ever built before.”
The Chaparral made waves after a successful test flight was conducted with a team of just 16 employees in August of 2019. Among the team are several stand-out millennial entrepreneurs, like Kofi Asante. “I love entrepreneurship because you can disrupt what exists and do it in a sustainable way,” says Asante, the team’s strategy lead.
Elroy Air is doing just that. The team’s challenge going forward will be making operations as affordable as possible. The goal is to ensure that the Chaparral aircraft is less expensive than other air cargo options and competitive with the cost of trucking. The team hopes to accomplish this by ramping up production, while saving on parts ordered in bulk, and having a single pilot control a large fleet of drones.
Although the technology behind autonomous delivery drones is still being developed, with advances like these, next-generation shipping methods are just on the horizon.