Saturday, April 02, 2022

Drone Deliveries Have Already Started in Parts of the United States

Drone companies have been cleared to expand their operations across the United States, in cities as well as rural areas, at the same time their tech has become faster and more reliable

The Wall Street Journal 
By Christopher Mims
April 2, 2022 12:00 am ET

Delivery drones are arriving, at last.

After nearly a decade of largely unfulfilled hype about flying robots dropping orders at your doorstep, a handful of companies have started commercial operations in the U.S. involving dozens or hundreds of deliveries a day at each location. The companies are vying to be Americans’ choice when they want a bottle of Advil, a takeout meal, or the next iPhone delivered in under 30 minutes—once federal regulators enable broader rollouts.

Zipline recently started working on deliveries with Walmart at an Arkansas location, the San Francisco startup’s first commercial delivery station in the U.S. Flytrex, an Israeli startup focused on food delivery in the U.S. suburbs, just announced a new delivery station in Texas after two years of testing in North Carolina. Wing, a unit of Google parent Alphabet, has rapidly increased its deliveries in Virginia as a result of the pandemic., which kicked off the drone delivery buzz in 2013, also is still working on the technology, though it has been more reticent about its progress.

While still small-scale, the operations mean that in a handful of locations, regular people, not just specially authorized beta testers, now can try these services for themselves. The companies, using different technological approaches and business models, are collectively showing that the industry has worked out many—though far from all—of the kinks that delayed the advent of drone delivery before.

“I like to compare launching a drone delivery service to getting FDA approval,” says Yariv Bash, chief executive of Flytrex. “From just mixing up some chemicals to getting to certification by the FDA is a very long process.” Similarly, making drone delivery work at a commercial scale in the U.S. requires designing and building drones, then getting them certified through the same process by which passenger aircraft are certified, he adds.

Advocates for drone delivery say the technology could reduce emissions, the cost per trip, and traffic on America’s roads, while also making sub-half-hour delivery—some companies are claiming delivery in as little as 5 minutes—the new norm in the race toward e-commerce instant gratification.

U.S. regulators worry about the things that could go wrong if the skies above America were darkened with swarms of delivery drones—such as drones crash-landing or, worse, colliding with passenger aircraft. Which is why the biggest obstacle to wider adoption of drone delivery is regulatory.

No drone delivery company in America is currently yet fully certified to fly everywhere, without a human controlling or at least monitoring the aircraft. The Federal Aviation Administration says it is developing regulations that would allow it to safely issue such authorization.

Backyard drone strikes

Operating for years overseas, Zipline has logged 20 million miles of flights across 275,000 commercial deliveries, mostly of blood, vaccines and medical products in Rwanda and Ghana. Late last year, it built a launch platform attached to the back of a Walmart in Pea Ridge, Ark., just outside the retail giant’s headquarters city of Bentonville. The Pea Ridge facility can serve any home in a 50-mile radius, says Keller Rinaudo, Zipline’s CEO.

Zipline operates 11-foot wide, fixed-wing drones that launch from a steel rail by an electric motor that accelerates the 44-pound aircraft to 60 miles an hour in one second. Flying autonomously, the drones drop orders at their assigned addresses in cardboard boxes suspended beneath paper parachutes. Upon return to the launch station, they maneuver so that a centimeter-wide hook on their tails catches a line suspended at the end of a long, carbon-fiber arm—akin to the tailhook systems that halt Navy jets landing on aircraft carriers.

One objection to drone delivery has arisen over the noise of a typical multi-rotor drone coming in for a delivery. Zipline’s drones are much quieter. “There is no noise level, none,” says Pea Ridge Mayor Jackie Crabtree.

Zipline has improved its drones so that they can hit a target as small as two parking spaces, says Mr. Rinaudo. Each delivery can be up to 4 pounds.

Like its rivals, Zipline can operate its service only because it has permission from the FAA. That authorization comes after a lengthy certification process, or else by being granted an exception to existing rules. In either case, the FAA must approve each new drone delivery project individually. While Zipline’s drones fly themselves, current FAA regulations require a human to monitor each drone’s entire flight, either remotely or by keeping it in sight. A company spokesman says Zipline is working toward certifications that will allow its drones to operate beyond visual line of sight.

People in the industry say that as early tests have shown that new drone designs specific to delivery have proved safe, the FAA has lately been moving more quickly to issue permissions for even bigger rollouts.

Flytrex focuses on takeout

Flytrex has been testing its drones abroad, and, since spring of 2020, making deliveries from a Walmart store in North Carolina, where it has delivered more than 18,000 items and can serve up to 10,000 homes, says a Flytrex spokesman. Its new delivery station in Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth, is offering delivery in partnership with Brinker International, owner of the Chili’s and Maggiano’s Little Italy restaurant chains.

Granbury, a town of about 10,000, surrounds a big lake, making it hard for delivery drivers to get around quickly, says Brinker’s head of innovation, Wade Allen. Using drones there has cut many delivery times in half, and is significantly cheaper than partnering with a ground-based food delivery service, he says.

Flytrex’s drone looks like a large version of the ones used by hobbyists and filmmakers, and carries up to 6 pounds. Each drone delivery can accommodate up to 33 chicken wings with fries and sauce, or 27 if they are bone-in. “We might be able to squeeze in some pies and a drink as well,” says Mr. Allen.

Amazon Prime bombardment

Jeff Bezos, then Amazon’s CEO, launched highflying hype when he announced in 2013 that his company was working on delivery by drone, and promised it would arrive in four to five years.

Amazon has been secretive about testing its drone delivery systems, but said in June 2020 that it received FAA approval to conduct tests. Business publication Insider last month reported that Amazon plans a September launch for commercial tests of its drone delivery service in California and Texas, delivering items under 5 pounds. Ultimately, Amazon plans to operate 145 drone launch stations and deliver 500 million packages by drone a year, said the documents obtained by Insider.

An Amazon spokesman declined to comment on the report.

Amazon in 2019 unveiled a drone with a radical, hexagonal wing design that is by far the largest of those currently being reviewed by the FAA for delivery to households. That vehicle weighs nearly 90 pounds. The company is testing a variety of different drone styles, all of which carry onboard systems for detecting and avoiding obstacles, says a company spokesman. Amazon has pegged its hopes for sub-30 minute delivery of packages up to 5 pounds to its incipient fleet of drones, he added.

To make a delivery, Amazon’s drones fly within a few feet of the ground and drop packages, a process that seems fine for the kind of goods already packaged for the rigors of delivery by truck, but which would make a hash of something like a hot meal or coffee. Unlike its competitors, this puts Amazon’s potentially loud drone close to the ground.

Alphabet’s disposable drones

Wing has been delivering items including coffee, meals and Girl Scout cookies in Charlottesville, Va., since 2019. The company has been testing even longer in Australia, where the bulk of the 200,000 deliveries it has completed as of March 1 were made. It took Wing more than 2½ years to make its first 100,000 deliveries, and six months to make its second 100,000, says a company spokesman.

Wing has taken a “fundamentally different approach to how drones should fly” than Amazon, says Alexa Dennett, head of communications for Wing. Made of carbon fiber and injection-molded foam, its drones weigh just 10 pounds, the lightest among the companies seeking FAA approval for delivery.

Wing’s drones have the electronics that the FAA mandates for all commercial drones and new aircraft to enable mutual detection, and they are designed to be fragile enough that a crash or collision would do little or no harm to anything they hit, says Ms. Dennett.

Wing is also changing its strategy. In Virginia, it delivers goods from a central hub, the same one used in 2019 for the first commercial drone delivery in U.S. history. (That drone is now in the collection of the Smithsonian.) In Frisco and Little Elm, Texas, bedroom communities of Dallas, Wing will soon launch a service that delivers directly from a Walgreens pharmacy. The idea is that Wing’s drone delivery system should occupy no more than a few spaces in a retailer’s parking lot, from which a half-dozen drones can take off and land vertically.

To start a delivery, a drone hovers above a Walgreens staffer, and lowers a hook to which an aerodynamic cardboard package containing a customer’s order—up to 3.3 pounds—is attached. The drones fly autonomously, and can charge themselves when they return.

Some people ask whether anyone has ever shot at a delivery drone. In thousands of Flytrex flights, this has never happened, says Mr. Allen of Brinkers. They are hard to detect when in flight, and shooting at an aircraft, even a drone, is a felony, he adds. Birds also have left the drones alone.

Advanced air-traffic control

For all of these drone delivery businesses to scale up from limited commercial tests to a nationwide phenomenon—picture Amazon Prime’s nearly 150 million U.S. members being able to tick a box and pay a few extra bucks for drone delivery—companies are going to need permission to operate their drones completely autonomously, with little or no human oversight.

In February, the FAA announced that it would begin field tests this spring of an air-traffic control system just for unmanned aircraft that stay below 400 feet, says an FAA spokeswoman. The FAA has already laid out its plans for safely enabling fully autonomous drone delivery across the U.S., she adds.

Amazon and Wing have both developed their own software systems for drones to autonomously plan flight routes, avoid collisions, and steer clear of areas around airports and tall buildings.

For the FAA to create standards for how such autonomous flight operation systems work, they must first be developed by a consortium of drone companies and traditional aerospace firms and then tested in the real world. The time-consuming nature of this approach to making drone delivery a reality is one reason it has been so long in coming, says Flytrex CEO Yariv Bash.

Another challenge to making drone delivery work is that the drones must meet the same FAA safety standards as passenger aircraft. And companies must overcome hurdles inherent to operating an aerial-logistics service on a mass scale—including inventory and fulfillment, user interfaces, and fleet management—all at a price that is attractive and eventually profitable.

“Everybody tends to focus on the drone itself because that’s the sexy thing you can latch onto,” says Mr. Rinaudo. “But the drone is only 15% of the complexity of what we do.”

While challenges remain, companies say they are encouraged by a positive feedback loop between expanded testing and the FAA’s evolving regulation: The more flights that companies are allowed to make, the more chances they have to demonstrate that they can successfully make deliveries without incident, and the more trust there is with regulators.

“It’s a very different mind-set with the FAA than it was a year ago,” says Mr. Bash of Flytrex, which is planning additional delivery stations in Texas. “Their approach has always been, crawl, walk, run—hopefully we are now getting to the walk part.”

1 comment:

  1. Not much propulsion power is required for the zipline winged version compared to vertical lift designs. Good choice for quieter operation.

    Launch/deliver/land video looks good:

    Homeowner delivery example: