Coronavirus provides landmark opportunity for U.S. drone delivery

by | Jul 8, 2020

Coronavirus provides landmark opportunity for U.S. drone delivery

Alphabet’s drone delivery company Wing doubled the amount of drone deliveries made in the U.S. over the past two weeks. UPS is conducting drone delivery tests for a White House report about drone use in the Coronavirus response. Flytrex is shipping supermarket supplies to the people’s backyards in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

U.S. drone delivery may finally be having its moment.

Drone delivery operations have been going on with general success around the world for years. WeRobotics drones flying in Peru’s Amazon rainforest deliver anti-venom medication to remote villages. Zipline drones deliver blood transfusion supplies, emergency vaccines, HIV medications, and antimalarials in Rwanda, Ghana and Tanzania.

But in the U.S., drone delivery has historically been slow to takeoff. Regulations around flying over people or outside line of sight make drone delivery tough. Systems like Remote ID (putting electronic license plates on drones) or UTM (air traffic control for drones) introduce new hurdles. Plus, much of the general public still fears drones.

Andreas Raptopoulos, founder and CEO of Matternet — which has has built delivery drones for companies including UPS and Mercedes-Benz — said that in countries where there is a pressing need, regulatory hurdles are generally overcome more quickly.

And in the U.S., coronavirus may have signalled the arrival of a pressing need.
U.S. drone delivery coronavirus

FAA specifically addresses drones during coronavirus

In a memo sent out on April 14, the Federal Aviation Administration specifically addressed the fact that drones can aid in a number of coronavirus-related use-cases.

“The FAA is enabling drone use for COVID-19 response efforts within our existing regulations and emergency procedures,” according to an FAA memo. “Our small unmanned aircraft rule (Part 107) and Certificate of Authorization process allow operators to transport goods and certain medical supplies–including test kits, most prescription drugs and, under certain circumstances, blood–provided the flight complies with all provisions of the rule or authorization.”

The FAA also said it would issue special approvals, often in less than an hour, for emergency drone operations.

Wing drone deliveryAn Alphabet Wing drone with a Fedex package

Alphabet’s Wing drones see surge in demand during coronavirus

Wing, the drone delivery arm of Alphabet (which is the company formerly known as Google), was — up until this month — was the only service offering large-scale drone deliveries to the general public in North America.

And this could be a defining moment for the company. The delivery service saw a “dramatic increase” in its customer growth — primarily where it operates in rural Virginia — according to a Bloomberg report. The company, which made over 1,000 drone deliveries in the past two weeks, doubled its number of deliveries in the US and Australia.

Wing operates its drone delivery service in Christiansburg, Virginia, which is part of the FAA’s  Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program through a partnership with Virginia Tech and Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership (MAAP), located in nearby Blacksburg.

Wing for months now has been partnering with Fedex, Walgreens and a small retailer called Sugar Magnolia to deliver products to the homes of Christiansburg residents who sign up for the Wing delivery program.

Since coronavirus, Wing has augmented its delivery items to include household essentials like pasta or baby food.

Smaller companies like Flytrex, Wingcopter look to compete with Alphabet’s Wing

But Google isn’t the only player for long. Flytrex in April announced drone delivery service directly to backyards in Grand Forks, North Dakota. The operation is being done in partnership with EASE Drones, the Grand Forks Region Economic Development Corporation and the City of Grand Forks in cooperation with the Northern Plains Unmanned Aerial System Test Site (NPUASTS).

The drone deliveries are focused on food, medicine and other essential goods via drone to “selected households observing social distancing recommendations.” Customers have to opt-in to the service.

Drones are taking off across the street from a supermarket in Grand Forks (which is providing the items being shipped).

The deliveries will be made , with takeoffs taking place across the street from a local shopping supercentre, where provisions will be purchased. During initial stages of the pilot program, deliveries will be offered to a select number of area households which have opted-in to the service online.

“In this time of crisis and social distancing, drones provide the ideal solution to bolster delivery capacity while keeping citizens safe at home,” said Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash.

Flytrex primarily had been focused on drone deliveries in Iceland (it launched an on-demand urban drone delivery service in Reykjavik in 2017).

Flytrex is also part of the UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP) in partnership with the North Carolina Department of Transportation.

German drone delivery company Wingcopter launched a trial on behalf of the NHS Scotland to provide the Isle of Mull with COVID-19 tests via drone. They said it cuts the delivery times from as much as six hours by car and ferry to 15 minutes.

Amazon is still working to launch its own Prime Air service.

UPS conducts drone delivery tests for White House report

Parcel delivery giant UPS had been increasing its footprint in the drone industry prior to coronavirus (notably, UPS last year initiated the first ongoing revenue-generating drone delivery service at WakeMed’s flagship hospital and the campus in Raleigh, N.C.).

But coronavirus seems to have been an impetus for more drone delivery growth. UPS, in a partnership with drone startup DroneUp, is testing how drones can aid hospitals through delivery.

DroneUp and UPS’s “fast-paced simulation” testing was designed to collect data to determine how private-sector drone operators can effectively supplement emergency response and certain patient care. The findings and recommendations will be included in a report to the White House, where leaders are considering what role the nascent industry could play in the Coronavirus response.

UPS has a drone-specific subsidiary called UPS Flight Forward (UPSFF) which, through Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT), and Workhorse Group, has been studying how to scale drone use cases in the U.S. healthcare system at any time, but especially during the coronavirus crisis.

“Drones offer a low-touch option for delivery of lab specimens and medical products that could make a significant impact in an urgent response application,” said Scott Price, UPS chief strategy and transformation officer.

Crisis stimulates innovation

It’s long been thought that innovation succeeds during times of crisis. Most experts attribute the rise in e-commerce to the 2002 SARS outbreak. Consumer internet use had been low in China prior to then — and e-commerce was almost non-existent. But experts suspect e-commerce saw its spike as consumers, trapped at home, still wanted to shop, providing an opportunity for the now massive Alibaba and to take shape.

While recessions feel painful, they have been known to promote long-term economic growth. While it is tough to see companies fold, financial experts call this cutting “economic fat.”

Some have criticised the drone industry for being over-regulated. But in the wake of coronavirus, the Trump Administration is reportedly looking into more deregulation to boost economic recovery. While that deregulation is primarily focused on small business rollbacks, that could remove barriers that drone startups have faced in breaking out and competing against bigger players like Alphabet.

With fewer regulations — and finally, a true and pressing need for contactless deliveries — coronavirus may have provided the windfall that drone delivery needs to finally takeoff.


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