Author(s): Raghu Gopal
In a first for commercial drone delivery in the US, 7-Eleven together with drone maker Flirtey completed deliveries by government-approved, fully autonomous commercial drones during the past month. These are test deliveries to a dozen select customers living within a mile of one particular 7-Eleven store in Reno, Nevada, but this is just the start of a new way of getting products from one place to another.
7-Eleven, the world's largest convenience store chain with close to 11,000 stores in the US and 60,000 worldwide, plans to make drone delivery a widely available service as soon as regulations allow. Although Alphabet and Amazon have been working on bringing commercial drone delivery to market, 7-Eleven together with Flirtey beat both players to achieve this first in the US.
Flirtey is a privately-held company that builds and operates its own specialized delivery drones, including software to run the machines. It also develops proprietary packaging to keep contents safe during transit. The start-up has worked with NASA and several universities to create a technology and logistics systems for a mass-market drone delivery network. Flirtey was also the first company to conduct a delivery approved by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) in the US, the first to perform a fully autonomous drone delivery to a home and the first to launch a commercial drone delivery service.
Commercial drone delivery is moving out of the public relations office and into real life.
In October 2016, Rwanda launched what might be the world's first commercial national drone service with Zipline to deliver blood in hard-to-reach areas of the country (see Drone Delivery Legitimacy). The French postal service is expected to begin testing a drone delivery programme to carry parcels on a set nine-mile route following approval from the aviation regulatory authority. The UK's Royal Mail has expressed interest in deploying drones for mail delivery in rural areas of the country. Amazon's Prime Air demonstrated its first delivery to a customer last week in the English countryside. In China, online retailer JD.com started the trial of its drone delivery programme in November 2016 with a fleet of 30 drones. Alibaba, the major e-commerce company, is also exploring a drone delivery service.
Although drone delivery trials are underway, there's no doubt there are hurdles to wide-scale deployment. In the US, for example, a nationwide programme is unlikely to come to fruition until 2020 when the FAA and the Department of Transportation draft new regulations and finalise a method for integrating unmanned aircraft with the national air traffic control system. The FAA issued its first drone regulations in October 2016, which stated that unmanned aerial vehicles must stay within the pilot's line of sight and they cannot be flown directly over densely populated areas. NASA and the FAA are testing a low-altitude air traffic control system that would track and record drone flights without the pilot watching the drone in the air the entire time.
There's excitement about drone delivery, but this will be slow moving. Air traffic control systems for drones will need to be in place before regular deliveries by drone can happen. Governments and industry tend to move at different speeds, but the groundwork is being set for drone use. In a few years, Christmas presents really will be delivered by magical flying machines.