In the not-too-distant future, drones will crowd the skies. Quadcopters, hexacopters, octocopters, svelte fixed-wing drones that look like miniature airplanes, hulking aircraft designed to lift 500 pounds, self-piloting Boeing air taxis and DJI’s teensy Mavic Mini flying camera will compete for airspace.
NASA Administrator Jim Bridenstine loves the idea. At the recent Commercial UAV Expo drone conference in Las Vegas, Bridenstine challenged the industry to get tens of thousands of daily drone flights over at least one US city by 2028. He also set out several “grand challenge” milestones to get us there, including a 2022 test flight with the cargo weight equivalent of at least one human passenger in simulated urban airspace.
Drone companies like Uber Elevate and Overwatch Imaging think drones will come even faster as innovations surge through the aerospace industry. The unmanned aircraft can deliver packages to hard-to-reach places, examine railway lines from overhead to ensure safety, survey construction sites and spray pesticide over crops to protect farms.
It won’t be easy getting to a future buzzing with drones. One difficulty is moving from today’s aviation safety regime, where certified pilots chat over the radio with air traffic controllers, to an automated airspace, where computers keep aircraft from colliding. Another hurdle is convincing people and politicians that the benefits of drones outweigh privacy intrusions and noise.
Here are the next three steps the industry has plotted to make the dream a reality.
Step 1: Saving lives with drones
It’s a lot harder to say no to drones when lives are on the line, so drone companies are eagerly pursuing medicine, search and rescue, firefighting and emergency situations.
Drone uses like public safety and organ delivery “are going to really help with public adoption,” said Ken Stewart, general manager of the GE Airxos division dedicated to managing a drone-saturated airspace. “It’s neat to get a burrito delivered, but everybody will support a drone that’s bringing medical health care to somebody.”
Zipline started with drones delivering medical supplies in Rwanda and is now flying drugs to islands off the coast of Massachusetts. DJI, a Chinese company that’s the dominant drone manufacturer, just hired a former Texas fire chief to coordinate its work with police, fire and rescue personnel in the US.
As part of a North Carolina drone project overseen by the Federal Aviation Administration, shipping company UPS is now delivering medical samples across the WakeMed hospital campus in partnership with drone delivery startup Matternet. Flights now take 5 minutes, a big speedup over delivery by vehicles on the ground, said Bala Ganesh, UPS’ vice president of advanced technology.
“We’ve taken something that was a concept, turned it into a vision, and now it’s reality,” Ganesh said, adding that the company wants to expand to similar sites like Kaiser Permanente hospitals in California and the University of Utah. It’s also begun delivering prescription medicine to people’s homes from CVS pharmacies by drone. UPS was the first company to pass the FAA’s Part 135 certification requirements for package delivery.
Step 2: New airspace rules for drones
To make drones commonplace, we need a system to keep them from colliding and falling out of the sky. Today’s air traffic control system, designed for a small number of big aircraft, is completely unsuited.
Air traffic control is currently a single, centralized system. UTM will change that setup, federating data from multiple smaller service providers. Those providers will gather data from governments, weather agencies and drone operators to coordinate flights taking place below 400 feet. UTM is in testing now, with support from companies like AirMap, Anra Technologies and Wing.
UTM replaces humans with an automated, computerized system that can keep up with the swarms of aircraft. And the FAA is on board.
“Automation is key. We want this to succeed. We want to enable people to innovate,” said Mel Johnson, the FAA’s deputy director for policy and innovation. But UTM still has to meet the public’s expectation of safety, he said.
To make UTM a reality, drones need digital license plates that use the Remote ID standard. Remote ID lets authorities know who’s in charge of a particular drone. Companies like Kittyhawk, which sells software to manage drone operations, are involved in hammering out the standard.
Remote ID and UTM open the door for another big change: operating drones “beyond visual line of sight,” or BVLOS. BVLOS is required for drone delivery operations like UPS’ plan to dispatch delivery drones out of hatches atop delivery trucks. Right now operating a drone you can’t see requires a difficult-to-get waiver called the FAA Part 107.
Once BVLOS arrives, “That’s when it truly starts to scale.” said Mark Dufau, a director of business development for AeroVironment, whose drones are used by the military and surveyors.
Automation will make drones just another tool for business, as routine as clipboards and measuring tapes, said Mike Winn, chief executive of DroneDeploy, which makes software to manage drone flights and data.
Step 3: Delivering the goods
Once we get used to aerial shipments of blood, prescription drugs, organs for transplant and antivenom for snakebites, those flying burritos could start to look more tempting.
That’s where we’ll see drone delivery efforts like Amazon Prime Air, UPS, Wing, and Uber Eats, the food delivery division that plans to take advantage of drones from the company’s Uber Elevate group.
“A lot of communities have leaned into these advanced use cases,” said Eric Allison, leader of the Uber Elevate effort for delivering meals and passengers by air. Once those communities show what’s possible, others will want drone deliveries, too, he predicted.
Uber is testing one-off food deliveries now as part of a broader San Diego drone experiment overseen by the FAA, but the company plans to expand the test with regular delivery service in mid-2020.
To minimize drone intrusiveness, Uber plans a three-leg food delivery journey. Couriers in cars would take food from restaurants to a nearby collection point it calls a “mobility hub” — likely an upgraded parking lot or garage. Then drones will fly it to another hub from which a second street-bound courier completes the delivery. Customers won’t know drones are involved except that food should arrive faster.
Startup A2Z Drone Delivery is also hoping to get ahead by keeping drones from being a bother. Its rapid-drop approach spools a package from 150 feet up to a home in about 5 seconds, said founder Aaron Zhang. That’ll minimize noise and privacy invasion, he said.
If drone makers and regulators don’t address social resistance, they could be delayed later by a backlash, similar to what’s happening now to embattled companies like Facebook, warned Travis Mason, leader of Airbus Urban Mobility’s regulatory strategy.
Nobody is dismissing such concerns. But at the conference, problem-solving eagerness prevailed over pessimism.
AirMap CEO David Hose likened drone challenges today to cars’ problems a century ago. They threatened pedestrians and horses, and they were hobbled by a shortage of gas stations. “We’re in that phase,” he said. “We’ll get past that.”
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