As a yellow delivery truck slides to the curb in a quiet suburban neighborhood, a hatch opens and a black drone pokes its rotors above the roof, ready to seek its next target.
The drone launches, carrying the type of cardboard box that gets deposited on the doorsteps of millions of homes daily. The truck resumes its route as the driver moves on to make deliveries to multiple homes.
Up 400 feet in the sky, the drone locates its target, descends and gently drops the box near the front porch. It then flies off to rendezvous with the mother ship, ready to take on its next mission.
This is how companies plan to disrupt the delivery industry: with tiny airborne robots clutching small packages.
Much bigger players — including Amazon, Google, UPS and DHL — are all in a heated race for dominance in drone delivery, a sector so new that the FAA only released rules for small small commercial drone operations this week.
Retailers and delivery companies banking on drones say that the technology will allow drivers to make more deliveries per hour without driving additional miles.
Generation Y’s demand for faster, cheaper deliveries is prompting Amazon, Wal-Mart and others to explore ways to cater to a boom in e-commerce.
“Effectively, the recipe for traditional delivery hasn’t changed in 100 years,” Burns said. “But e-commerce has forced the issue and caused everyone to rethink it.”
Workhorse, an electric truck maker — with the help of researchers from the University of Cincinnati — is developing a method to launch delivery drones from the roof of its trucks, saving drivers the time, effort and battery power of visiting each doorstep in a neighborhood.
It is already testing the system in Ohio and Texas. Cincinnati-based Workhorse also is cultivating a relationship with shipping giant UPS. It has a deal to sell $7 million in electric trucks to the delivery company, although drones aren’t part of the contract.
Commercial drone delivery has potential, according to UPS.
“Our initial tests show that if approved by the FAA, drones can be used as a tool to assist our drivers in making deliveries in a variety of situations where it makes sense,” said Dan McMackin, UPS spokesperson. “Ensuring the safety and security of the drivers, customers and public is critical for commercial drone delivery to become a business reality.”
Amazon, the world’s largest online retailer, is piloting a drone program that will deliver packages weighing less than 5 pounds to customers within 30 minutes from centrally located warehouses. The company’s Prime Air project is studying how to serve a range of areas, from farmland to cities.
Using drones could cut Amazon’s delivery costs to less than $1 per package, according to an analysis by investment research firm ARK Invest.
Competing against Amazon, Google parent company Alphabet has proposed to the FAA that airspace between 200 and 400 feet be reserved for delivery drones traveling between warehouses and customers. Executives have said they’re aiming to launch Project Wing next year.
“We believe this technology could open new approaches to the transportation and delivery of goods — options that are cheaper, faster and more environmentally sensitive than what’s possible today on the ground,” Project Wing spokesperson Jacqueline Miller told Trucks.com.
Even Wal-Mart, the world’s largest retailer and an emblem of traditional bricks-and-mortar selling, is testing drones to deliver goods and groceries to customers.
Meanwhile, German delivery company DHL conducted a three-month test of its “last-mile” drone project with private customers in Germany.
DHL’s Parcelcopter Skyport launches from and docks at a base it calls a Packstation. The company reported that the system has performed 130 autonomous loading and offloading cycles.
DHL said it doesn’t yet have plans to use the Parcelcopter for its regular operations but added, “We are convinced that the Parcelcopter technology can be used to create added value – especially in cases involving the transport of urgently needed medicines and deliveries to regions with poor infrastructure or which are geographically hard to reach.”
The FAA on Tuesday issued a 624-page rulebook that limits commercial drones to 55 pounds. They can fly during daylight hours but have an altitude ceiling of 400 feet. The agency has called integrating unmanned aircraft into the National Airspace System a top priority and has granted close to 4,000 companies an exemption in order to test the technology’s feasibility, with the requirement that the drones remain within the operator’s line of sight.
“Our plan is to safely integrate drones by developing the right policies, regulations, technologies and procedures incrementally,” the agency said in a statement. “Unmanned aircraft are already performing a number of important tasks, from inspecting aging infrastructure to monitoring crops and wildlife. And, we’re educating the public.”
The FAA said in its annual forecast that combined sales for hobbyist and commercial drones could nearly triple from 2.5 million units this year to 7 million in 2020. Acknowledging that development of drone technology is accelerating, the FAA announced in May it is establishing a drone advisory committee to guide the agency on integrating drones into its airspace regulations.
“Every week it seems someone comes up with a new technology or a new use for these amazing aircraft,” FAA Administrator Michael Huerta said. “We’ve come a long way from where we were just a handful of years ago.”
Meanwhile, Workhorse is refining its system. Its drone launches from the roof of its delivery truck, rises to cruising altitude and uses GPS to steer to a doorstep within a two-mile radius. When the drone reaches its destination, a remote human pilot monitors a multi-camera video feed as it releases the package within 18 inches of the ground.
The drone then uses infrared tracking to navigate to the delivery truck’s new location, where it docks and recharges using the truck’s onboard battery. Workhorse’s drones can carry packages up to 10 pounds and fly for half an hour at top speeds of 50 mph.
Workhorse has chosen neighborhoods in Ohio and Texas as testing sites so that it can expose its drones to extreme temperatures and winds.
So far, Burns said, the drones can operate in rain and snow but not heavy winds. That one of the program’s biggest challenges is redocking on a truck on a windy day is not surprising, according to Burns.
“Weather comes into play in any aircraft,” he said.
But companies like Workhorse need to contend with more than just the elements. Public opinion hasn’t caught up with advances in drone technology. Many people worry that the drones could crash into buildings or bystanders, knock aircraft out of the sky, or invade people’s privacy.
A Pew Research Center survey reported that 63 percent of Americans think it would be a change for the worse if personal and commercial drones were given permission to fly through most U.S. airspace. Rasmussen Reports, another polling company, found that 41 percent of Americans think the commercial use of drones makes flying less safe.
Some incidents have already been reported. In April, for example, a British Airways pilot said that a drone struck his plane as he landed at Heathrow Airport, even though it’s illegal to fly a drone near a plane.
Public skepticism means that drones will need to be integrated slowly and wrapped in technology that people already understand, Burns said.
“You can’t just snap your fingers and have the whole U.S. public accept drones flying overhead,” Burns said. “You need to bring it in on the heels of something they know. Everyone’s familiar with the friendly neighborhood delivery truck. That’s the way to ease into it.”