On a bluff south of San Francisco overlooking the Pacific Ocean, an electric motor whips a drone built by startup Zipline off a catapult launch ramp beside me and into the air on a test flight. The aircraft, with a fixed-wing design resembling that of a conventional airplane, pilots itself north, plans its approach based on the wind direction, makes a sweeping turn and drops a box of Band-Aids, Advil and Tums by parachute onto the grass a few yards in front of me.
Drone deliveries could be dropping into your life, too, as the technology involved matures and expands beyond isolated test projects. In 2023, drones could replace vans and your own trip to the store when you need medicine, takeout dinners, cordless drill batteries or dishwasher soap.
Today, Alphabet Wing drones reach hundreds of thousands of people in Australia, Finland and Texas and will expand its service in 2023, according to Jonathan Bass, who runs marketing for the business. "I would expect those to go into the millions," he said of the number of people Wing will be able to reach.
Drone delivery could provide a new level of convenience and immediacy when you want a cup of coffee or need some medication. It could reduce traffic and cut carbon emissions. And it could help lock in our pandemic habits of ordering stuff that we once ventured out into the real world to pick up.
Amazon first showed off drone delivery 10 years ago with the, which some critics derided as a publicity stunt. And though there have been challenges with technology, privacy and regulations, that's changing.
Companies like Drone Express, Matternet, DroneUp and Manna all are active. The result has been drone delivery options for many residents in Texas, California, Virginia, Ohio, Georgia, Utah, North Carolina and Arkansas. International operations also are maturing, with accommodating regulations in Europe, large-scale operations in Australia and Zipline's six-year track record of and Ghana. Companies like DoorDash, Walmart and Kroger are cutting deals with drone delivery companies to get products into customers' hands.
Drone deliveries will still be the exception rather than the rule for most of us. But the technology has begun to fulfill its promise.
What drone deliveries are like
You typically order products for drone delivery through the retailer or restaurant, the delivery company itself or a service like Doordash.
Bobby Healy, chief executive of Irish drone delivery company Manna, expects the delivery companies will generally fade into the background the way you don't usually care if a package arrives by FedEx, UPS or the US Postal Service. "In drone delivery, you're going to be powering the big brands — the grocery companies, the big restaurant chains."
Manna delivers groceries and coffee from local retailers. Zipline delivers pharmacy products that customers order through Intermountain Healthcare in Utah and through Walmart in Arkansas, for example. Drone Express delivers Papa John's pizzas — but not drinks — in Georgia. near Dallas and Fort Worth, Texas. in Texas and California.
There's typically a delivery fee involved. Manna charges about $4 to $5 to get you a cup of coffee or some groceries ASAP. The ordering apps keep you up to date on when your order is arriving, similar to vehicle based services like DoorDash, GrubHub and Uber Eats.
Drones don't usually land in your backyard but instead stay airborne to minimize safety and noise problems. Zipline drones, for example, fly 300 to 400 feet above the ground and drop packages in padded boxes slowed by a small parachute into a spot about the size of two parking spaces. Wing and Manna lower their packages with a tether, while Amazon drops its from a height of about 15 feet.
"It delivers in 10 minutes," Drone Express CEO Beth Flippo said of a test near Dayton, Ohio, with grocery chain Kroger. "People were coming outside in their pajamas. They had no idea it would come that fast." Ice cream was the biggest seller, she added.
Most drones are self-piloting, with safety features like redundant components and return-to-home behavior if there's a problem. Drones typically pilot themselves autonomously but under the oversight of human observers in the US.
Drone delivery expansion plans
Drone delivery companies are cagey about specifics, but all expect to expand operations this year.
"We're hoping by the end of 2023 to have hundreds of locations," Flippo said, an expansion hinging on Federal Aviation Administration certification of its drones. Because each business would have its own launch site, one city might well have several sites, but that still means a lot of potential drone delivery customers. "Within three miles of every Kroger, you reach 100 million people," she said, and Kroger's acquisition of rival Albertson's would mean even more.
DroneUp, another delivery startup, is expanding, too. "We are delivering on our commitment with our partner Walmart to open 34 delivery Hubs across six states, bringing drone delivery to 4 million Americans," CEO Tom Walker said in a statement. It's also expanding into other drone services, like construction site surveys, real estate photography and insurance claims support. It expects to train more than 1,000 drone pilots in 2023 at its DroneUp Flight Academy, up from 170 in 2022.
Zipline expects to continue its growth, too. In 2022, it made about 215,000 deliveries, more than the five years before that combined, and in 2023, it'll expand to new markets, add new services and try to reach new customers, said Irene Scher, who leads go-to-market work in the US. A shift from plastic inserts to more compact crumple zones will expand cargo volume and nearly double the payload weight its drones can carry this year, too.
Drone delivery regulatory progress and problems
You can't just set up a drone distribution hub in a parking lot or on a store roof and whisk products to customers. The FAA has been working to balance drone deliveries with other airspace uses.
US airspace rules date back to the pioneering days of aviation, accommodating hobbyists with single-engine Cessnas and crop dusters spraying fields. Most aircraft have radio beacons called transponders that are key to a satellite-based navigation and airspace awareness system called ADS-B. That makes safety much easier for drones, but not all aircraft have them.
The FAA convened a group to study drone flights beyond visual line of sight — BVLOS — to try to address airspace issues the drone delivery industry faces as it tries to expand to large-scale operations that don't need visual overseers. Their recommendation for low altitude areas: require aircraft with no transponders to yield to drones, and require drones to yield to aircraft with transponders.
Drone companies like the idea.
Zipline expects the FAA will show progress in 2023 toward embracing some of the recommendations. "That will demonstrate that there is a regulatory path to that type of scale," said Okeoma Moronu, Zipline's head of global aviation regulatory affairs.
Things are very different in Rwanda and Ghana, where Zipline can fly drones without visual observers. And in Europe, regulators are actually a step ahead of drone delivery companies, Manna's Healy said, thanks to rules that went into effect Jan. 1 that make larger-scale, automated flights more feasible.
"It becomes so black and white and simple to share the airspace with competitors and noncompetitors. I hope the USA follows that approach," Healy said. That simple airspace is critical to Manna's expansion plans. "In 2024, we want to be doing a million flights a day."
More than just instant gratification
There are stronger drone delivery incentives than just helping customers who want an ice cream fix right away.
Studies have shown health benefits to Zipline's delivery of blood and vaccines in Rwanda, the country where it got its start. For example, a drone delivering blood transfusions is a lot simpler and cheaper than paving roads in remote areas. And a study in The Lancet found that blood deliveries by drone in Rwanda often were faster than traditional delivery in the US and that blood products at hospitals expired 67% less.
Climate advantages are real, too, since the alternative to drones often is a delivery truck or single person driving to the store. That uses more energy than a drone, even with efficient electric vehicles. The only thing better, Manna concluded, was an electric bike.
Delivery drones emit 84% less greenhouse gases than diesel trucks and 31% less than electric vans, a study by Carnegie Mellon researchers reported in August. Used at scale in the Dallas-Ft. Worth area, drones could cut carbon emissions into the atmosphere by 49 kilotons per year, a study by consulting firm Accenture concluded. Drones cut traffic congestion, too.
A 2020 Virginia Tech study, underwritten by Wing, also found economic benefits, like cutting travel time for customers and expanding businesses' reach to new customers.
Privacy, noise, safety and cluttered skies remain issues that drone companies are tackling. Generally, though, incidents like a Wing drone landing on power lines and cutting power to 2,000 Australians are unusual, and certification requirements for pilots, procedures and aircraft are designed to keep the airspace safe.
Those kinds of issues are why you don't see swarms of drones flitting over the suburbs today. But given drone delivery companies' progress, don't be surprised to see them tomorrow.