Delivery drones are unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) that can deliver lightweight packages. Drones generally use 4-8 propellers and rechargeable batteries to provide thrust and attach packages underneath the body of the drone. Delivery drones are operated autonomously or remotely, with operators potentially overseeing multiple drones at once.
In several places around the world, drones are being used for time-sensitive deliveries, such as medicine, and for deliveries that would be difficult to make using traditional vehicles. Delivery drones have the potential to change last mile delivery economics for smaller and lighter packages by replacing many deliveries currently made by traditional delivery vehicles.
The first regulations by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) allowing commercially operated drones in the United States were issued in 2016. These regulations permit limited use of commercial drones for deliveries. They require that a certified pilot keep the drone within sight; the drone flight cannot be conducted from a moving vehicle. In addition, the combined weight of the drone and its package must be under 55 pounds. Existing regulations were updated in 2019 to allow certified pilots to use drones to carry packages beyond their lines of sight.
In accordance with these FAA regulations, several companies have received varying levels of approval to operate or test limited drone delivery systems in the United Sates.
- UPS has tested drones that could launch from a traditional delivery vehicle, allowing drivers to deliver more packages and save on fuel costs. The UPS plan would be particularly effective in rural locations, where there is unlikely to be a distribution warehouse from which to launch drones. Additionally, UPS received approval in October 2019 to begin drone deliveries in the air over people, out of line of sight, and with packages weighing more than 55 pounds. Around the same time, UPS began testing using drones to deliver medical specimens across WakeMed’s medical campus in Raleigh, NC. The program expanded to provide pharmaceutical deliveries to multiple retirement communities in Florida in April 2020 to aid in the Coronavirus response.
- Alphabet company Wing Aviation received similar approvals, and in October 2019 began a trial delivery system for food and other deliveries in Christianburg, VA.
- Amazon is testing drones under its Prime Air brand and has stated that 86% of its packages weigh less than five pounds. Amazon received FAA operating approval in August 2020 for trial commercial deliveries.
Internationally, DHL launched its first regular, fully automated urban drone delivery service in China in May 2019. DHL has used drones to deliver blood samples and medicine to remote islands, as well as packages to remote mountain towns in one-third of the time compared to a ground delivery vehicle. DHL has developed fully automated “Packstations” that allow customers to send a package delivered via drone with no human intervention. Other companies have used drones to deliver blood samples from remote African villages to labs for quick testing while eliminating arduous journeys over poor-quality roads.
Delivery drones could greatly reduce costs and time for last mile deliveries. While typical UPS and FedEx ground delivery may cost upward of $6 for delivery from a local distribution warehouse, drone delivery could be as cheap as $0.05 per mile with delivery in about 30 minutes.
Reduced roadway congestion due to less vehicle miles traveled (VMT) by delivery vehicles
Improved safety due to fewer at-grade rail crossings associated with less heavy traffic and fewer conflicts between delivery vehicles and other travel modes
Reduced greenhouse gas emissions, as smaller and lighter packages are transported via drones rather than traditional delivery trucks
Greater route flexibility compared to traditional delivery vehicles, thus enabling drivers to avoid delivery stops at highly congested locations
Reduced roadway and bridge maintenance costs due to less use by delivery vehicles
Limited package weights will prevent heavier or larger items from being delivered via drone
Constrained flight times and ranges due to limited battery capacities
Irregular and/or unpredictable events, such as weather, wildlife, or vandalism/sabotage, could bring down a drone during a delivery, potentially creating a safety hazard for those on the ground and/or adversely impacting reliability
Local restrictions may be enacted to limit operations in some areas, such as dense urban centers or where concerns about excess noise exist
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