If drone delivery finally takes off, how long will it be before the first package is delayed due to congestion?
That is one of the issues drone manufacturers are trying to solve for right now, before it becomes a nightmare scenario. Israel has undertaken a two-year pilot to develop integrated communications systems to coordinate dozens of drones flying at the same time in small areas.
“This is an opportunity for the regulators to learn what is needed to establish delivery drones as a daily reality and for the drone operators to learn what is expected of them in turn,” Hagit Lidor of the Israel Innovation Authority, one of several state agencies involved in the test, told Reuters.
The problem Israel authorities are trying to solve is not unique to that country, and it’s only one part of the overall problem – cost is also a big consideration for the potential success of drone delivery. UrbanFootprint, an “urban intelligence platform” that collects data and helps companies and local authorities map urban transformation, is attempting to put its collective data prowess to use in aiding drone travel and cost considerations. Joshua Goldstein, director of business development for UrbanFootprint, authored a report in collaboration with Duke CTI Practicum looking at the practicality of using drones to deliver medicines and vaccines to rural areas. He spoke with Modern Shipper on that report and the broader opportunity that exists for urban air mobility (UAM).
“This [report] is really a teaser of what we think the larger opportunity is,” he said. “UrbanFootprint has historically been [about an] urban planning platform. Our bread and butter is mobility planning. It was a natural evolution to take planning from the ground to the air.”
The report, “Using UrbanFootprint to Plan Drone Delivery of Medicines and Vaccines to Rural Areas,” which received additional support from NASA, shows what is possible for drones with proper planning. What it also indicates is that companies in the drone space need to work with local and state authorities to get approvals and regulations that will allow expanded drone deliveries.
“What became really clear to us is the FAA was like, ‘This is not our jam.’” Goldstein said, adding that it was clear the Federal Aviation Administration would prefer – at this stage – to pass local planning of drone operations onto states. “We thought there was opportunity at the planning stage. We tried to essentially suss out that opportunity here.”
The report focuses on rural delivery, but Goldstein said the urban example is a more interesting case study. He noted that in rural areas, drones are not flying over people, a lot of tall buildings and other obstacles, whereas in urban areas, these considerations and more come into play.
“The [drone] operators, we think, are waiting for some of the risk to be removed at the municipal level,” Goldstein said. “They want [clarity] on takeoff and landing.”
The case for rural areas extends to urban areas, Goldstein noted, with the added obstacles. It is especially acute, though, for delivery providers such as UPS, FedEx and Amazon where the cost for delivery in more remote areas is higher.
“Rural communities in the U.S. do not benefit from the same access to commercial delivery services as urban and suburban areas. In remote locations, companies such as FedEx and UPS cannot turn a profit due to high labor costs associated with long delivery distances, so they simply do not deliver. As a result, the U.S. Postal Service, an organization already plagued by labor shortages in rural areas (an issue exacerbated by COVID-19), is burdened with a higher volume of parcels, which strains the organization, reducing delivery timeliness and reliability,” the report noted.
Deutsche Bank data cited in the UrbanFootprint report noted the potential price difference between delivery providers. It cited a $6 to $6.50 per delivery cost for UPS or FedEx, $4 to $5 for a “mid-tier carrier,” $2 for the Postal Service per delivery, but just 5 cents per mile for drones or robots.
Drone delivery may be pretty straightforward in these areas, Goldstein said, but when the deliveries move into urban areas with patchwork networks of regulations, the complexity increases. UrbanFootprint, which has been helping urban planners and companies for years navigate around obstacles and regulations on the ground, is hoping its datasets and planning knowledge can assist in the development of the drone highway.
Goldstein thinks the FAA will eventually provide some overarching framework, but until then it’s regulation by locale.
“It’s worth emphasizing how early we are in all of this,” he said. “We’re really still in the earliest stages of this so we’re trying to be a flexible planning tool where that ambiguity is going to exist for a while.”
UrbanFootprint is already preparing a detailed look at urban drone delivery use cases and has applied for a second-phase grant from NASA so it can continue the research and development “to continue this and build out functionality for this industry.”