Over the last several years we have written about what the future of drones holds for supply chains. As technology has improved and regulations have eased, drones have increasingly made their way into the conversation around home delivery. However, there are still a number of obstacles to clear before this becomes a common option across the country. Other opportunities for drones abound and when looking at the overall state of drone usage, it appears as though the future of drones is now. And the coronavirus pandemic has certainly helped to speed up adoption and use cases for aerial fleets.
Drones and Home Delivery
Nearly seven years ago, Jeff Bezos appeared on 60 Minutes touting his idea for using drones for last mile deliveries. In those seven years, we have certainly come a long way, but are not quite where Bezos thought we would be. Many companies have been testing drone deliveries for the last few years, and after the FAA eased restrictions and approved a number of pilot tests, the technology has grown by leaps and bounds. Amazon itself has won a number of patents to further its drone operations including a floating blimp-like warehouse that would deploy drones for deliveries.
But even with these tests becoming more commonplace, the reality for drone deliveries is that for now, the most effective use is for delivering essential medical supplies. This is exactly what Zipline has done with medical supplies in remote areas of Rwanda, a program it kicked off in October 2016. Zipline has taken what it learned from that program and has recently partnered with Novant Health to deliver personal protective equipment and medical equipment in North Carolina. Zipline’s drones make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis to the company’s medical center in Huntersville, NC to help front line workers.
Along the same line, UPS and CVS have shown how the future of drone deliveries is here as well. The two companies are partnering to use drones to deliver prescriptions to residents of The Villages in Florida, one of the country’s biggest retirement communities. The deliveries come from a CVS store about a half mile away and mark the first paid residential deliveries by UPS’s drone unit Flight Forward. The drones drop the prescriptions to a central location, where a Flight Forward employee will ferry them by golf cart to homes.
Wing, the drone subsidiary of Alphabet, was one of the first companies to make last mile deliveries. The company completed their first real-world drone delivery in 2014 and ran a lot of tests for its technology in Australia. It was the first company to receive FAA approval for drone deliveries. During the coronavirus pandemic, the company has partnered with Walgreens to make prescription deliveries to people in quarantine.
There have been plenty of other trials around drone deliveries, and certainly plenty of interest. However, regulations in the US still make this an uphill climb. Densely populated areas make drone deliveries incredibly difficult. But, in rural areas, delivery trucks equipped with drones to make a simultaneous delivery are a much more appealing option. The bottom line for home delivery is that we are still in the early stages of figuring out how this will work. But the delivery of medicine and essential items is clearly the tip of the iceberg.
The FAA has selected eight companies to help establish technical requirements for Remote ID, a protocol that drones will be required to follow for broadcasting identification and location data while in flight. Remote ID would require drone manufacturers to make their products capable of sending out ID codes and location data during operation in national airspace. Drones without the Remote ID system could be flown only within special FAA-designated zones, usually the same sorts of places where hobbyists fly model airplanes. The selected companies are Airbus, AirMap, Amazon, Intel, OneSky, Skyward, T-Mobil, and Alphabet’s drone subsidiary, Wing. This move bodes well for the future of drones.
Drones as a Monitoring Tool
Once we look past drones as a last mile option, the supply chain picture gets a little clearer for the future of drones. There are a number of use cases where drones can take over time-consuming manual tasks that used to be done by people. Inventory management is a perfect example of this, especially in large sprawling warehouses or yards. These drones need to be fully autonomous, using a combination of computer vision technology, artificial intelligence, and RFID sensors. Using drones within the warehouse or yard can increase the frequency and accuracy of inventory checks, while speeding up the process considerably. Consider the possibility of running inventory checks overnight when a warehouse is closed with drones rather than using time or money to have it done manually. Drones can save time and money and do it all with a higher degree of accuracy.
Another area where drones have demonstrated use cases in at ports. Drones have been put to use by both port and ship operators alike. For port operators, drones give a quick way to look over the entire facility, which can span thousands of acres. Drones allow port operators to make sure everything is running the way it should and also to get a better handle on the amount of cargo that is on hand. With coronavirus creating bottlenecks in supply chains, capacity can be observed in a much more efficient way.
For ship operators, drones have been used to ferry supplies from the dock to ships at sea. Over the last few years, Maersk has run numerous tests to stock ships at sea without having to use smaller ships to bring the supplies. The goal is to reduce the cost of restocking ships by using the drones. Last week, Europe’s busiest port, Rotterdam, launched a drone delivery trial to bring parts and supplies to ships as well. The drones can also monitor ships at sea and aid in detection of problems and repairs.
Similar to ports, sprawling job sites and farms that are either closed or understaffed during the coronavirus quarantine can be closely monitored using drone technology. This can be used for monitoring inventory as well as the overall health of the site and equipment. All of this can be done faster and more efficiently using drones rather than people.
Drones and Coronavirus
The COVID-19 pandemic has thrust technology innovations ahead at a rapid pace. And while the drone use cases mentioned above all have seen upticks during this global pandemic, there are other use cases that have come to light solely due to coronavirus. The biggest use case has been the deployment of drones to enforce social distancing and monitor crowds.
Morocco has launched a fleet of drones to combat the coronavirus. Over the last few weeks, the country has rapidly expanded its fleet of drones for aerial surveillance, public service announcements, and sanitation. As lockdown orders were ignored by some, drones were dispersed to monitor and identify suspicious gatherings and relay warnings. The aeronautics department of the International University of Rabat (UIR) offered its facilities, expertise and prototypes to authorities in March, deploying drones with loudspeakers or infrared cameras able to detect movement at night.
In France, India, and the US, drones have also been deployed to monitor crowds for social distancing. China has used drones to issue orders to people that are not following pandemic rules. However, with all of this monitoring of movements, there is growing concern over privacy and civil liberties due to the ability for governments to be able to monitor civilians at all times.
Another coronavirus-related use case comes from Canadian drone maker Draganfly, and its collaboration with the Australian Department of Defense and the University of South Australia. The new drone will be part of a camera system to spot signs of illness, such as coughing and elevated temperatures. The drone is part of a bigger system to collect real-time data about the possible spread of the disease. The project will initially focus on “hot zones” to gauge infection rates. The IUR’s previously mentioned infrared cameras will also be able to spot individuals with high temperatures.
Is the future of drones here? There have been plenty of trials that would indicate that home delivery drones are right around the corner. The FAA has loosened restrictions and selected eight companies to help establish technical requirements for home delivery. However, there are still a number of obstacles to overcome. But, for other uses, drones are getting the job done. This includes inventory management within warehouses and yards, monitoring equipment at ports, farms, and job sites, and re-stocking ships at sea. With these use cases in mind, the present and future of drones both look bright when it comes to drones.