The future of last-mile delivery includes commercial drones dropping packages in neighborhoods, according to freight and logistics experts.
“Technology-wise, we are not that far away — we could potentially do it in the next five years or so,” said Matthias Winkenbach, director of the Megacity Logistics Lab at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology’s Center for Transportation & Logistics in Cambridge, Mass.
For now, commercial use of drones is restricted and package delivery still in the testing phase. Safety and privacy concerns and a thicket of legal and regulatory issues still loom before delivery by drone is routine.
Those challenges mean it could be a decade before routine package delivery by drones occurs, especially in congested urban areas, Winkenbach said.
FAA rules forbid drones from flying above people, at night or beyond the operator’s line of vision, among other restrictions.
But the agency has been working with the transportation industry for a number of years to make commercial drone use a reality. Since 2013, the FAA has designated seven test sites for research and tests of unmanned aircraft systems, or UAS.
Workhorse package birds
To demonstrate the feasibility of the technology, electric truck manufacturer Workhorse Group is leading a three-month real-world pilot using 70 homes near Cincinnati as its testing ground.
The test by the Loveland, Ohio-based company is the latest effort by transportation companies to bring drone package delivery to market.
“The idea with drone technology is to reduce the number of miles you are dragging a 20,000-pound truck around to deliver a package,” said Duane Hughes, president of Workhorse, which also makes drones and counts delivery giant UPS as a customer.
Workhorse uses drones launched from its electric delivery trucks to help bear the brunt of the last mile, which can be the costliest.
The FAA wants to accelerate the integration of commercial drones into the nation’s airspace as part of the administration’s goal to keep the U.S. from falling behind in drone technology.
To encourage innovation, the FAA separately recently named 10 public-private partnerships that will receive special waivers to its limits on commercial drone use as part of a three-year pilot program.
National drone test program
The FAA’s recent nationwide pilot program is the next step in its efforts to encourage business and public stakeholders to create, collect and share data based on real-world drone use.
“This program is about finding opportunities to collaborate and figure out how to best integrate UAS operations into the National Airspace System, and into the lives of local communities,” according to the FAA.
The agency hopes the program will “bring innovation and different ideas that will improve integration, safety and operations for the entire UAS community as it integrates with the manned aviation community.”
Some program partnerships will include research into package delivery by drone, which is considered especially challenging because it involves unmanned aircraft flying near people and buildings.
San Diego, for example, will work with companies to test food delivery by drone.
Virginia’s Innovation and Entrepreneurship Investment Authority, Virginia Tech and NASA make– up another partnership. Their project will focus on the technology and systems needed for package delivery, including in rural communities. Alphabet Inc.’s Project Wing will participate, along with other private companies.
Truck-launched drone delivery tests
Meanwhile, private companies continue to test drone delivery, with FAA clearance.
The eight-armed HorseFly drone being used in the Workhorse delivery tests weighs about 50 pounds, flies up to 50 mph and can carry up to a 10-pound package. The drone is launched from the roof of a specially designed Workhorse delivery truck. There is a small cage below the roof where the driver loads the package for the drone to deliver.
How weight, weather and other factors affect drone delivery is the focus of the Workhorse test, which includes gathering 500 data points for each flight. That data are shared with the FAA and UPS.
“We are doing this primarily for data collection and learning processes,” Hughes said.
In its test program, Workhorse has delivered five packages a day and up to about 30 a week in the first weeks of the pilot, he said.
The average delivery is made from 80 to 100 yards away from the Workhorse electric delivery truck and takes about 10 minutes, Hughes said.
The company is testing different battery configurations on the drones as well as package weights.
Workhorse offered several hundred households in Loveland the opportunity to particpate.
Various-sized packages of small consumer items are assembled by Workhorse to help it test drone performance. Consumers can track the packages using the company’s Ares mobile app and approve or cancel once alerted about the delivery.
A consumer also can request the package be delivered to a certain spot at the delivery site. Due to safety concerns, the drone stays above the roofline. It lowers the test package to the ground.
The drones have cameras. Consumers only can see the camera’s view as their packages are delivered at their houses. But those cameras may raise privacy concerns for the FAA.
The agency might eventually require drones to turn off their cameras until they arrive at their destinations.
The Workhorse test program is the latest in a series of small tests by drone companies, delivery companies, automakers and online retailers in recent years. Some of the tests are being done outside of the FAA’s jurisdiction and rules.
In Zurich, Mercedes-Benz vans outfitted with drones from Menlo Park, Calif.-based Matternet have tested local package delivery that involved operating drones beyond the pilot’s line of sight. Mercedes-Benz, which has invested in Matternet, also worked in partnership with the Zurich-based online retailer Siroop.
In the U.S., FAA safety rules still shape the prospects for drone delivery. As part of Virginia Tech’s Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership program, researchers have flown drones into crash test dummies at different angles to look at human injury risk from different drone models.
While most aircraft go through a rigorous process to ensure their safety, unmanned aircraft haven’t been as thoroughly tested, said Mark Blanks, director of MAAP.
“Our concern is making the interaction between drones and the public as productive and beneficial as possible,” Blanks said.
“Package delivery is one of the most interesting areas to work on because of that interaction,” he said.