Delivery by Drones: An Emerging Option to Meet Last-Mile Needs
In supply chain logistics, two of the areas in which drones are generating a buzz include last-mile delivery and micromobility.
Drone enthusiasts are touting the benefits they can provide—including delivery efficiency and reduced traffic congestion.
On the flip side, privacy advocates and those concerned about airspace safety are warning of the potential hazards related to filling the skies with low-altitude, remote-controlled devices.
Here, we’ll take a look at the role of the FAA; last-mile delivery and micromobility applications; recent news about some of the companies leading the way; and a few of the pros and cons being debated.
Delivery Drones and the FAA
The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) regulates the use of drones—both for recreational and commercial purposes to “integrate them into the national airspace.”
The FAA provides many resources regarding regulations for drone use, including those related to package delivery, which requires Part 135 certification.
In “Package Delivery by Drone (Part 135)”, the FAA provides an overview—as well as a little history regarding early players in this space.
“From 2017 through 2020 the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) focused on testing and evaluating the integration of civil and public drone operations into our national airspace system. This work continues under the UAS BEYOND program which focuses on the remaining challenges of UAS integration, including beyond visual line of sight (BVLOS) operations, societal and economic benefits of UAS operations, and community engagement.”
“Participants in these programs are among the first to prove their concepts, including package delivery by drone through part 135 air carrier certification. Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.”
“As participants in these programs move to prove their concepts, they must use FAA's existing Part 135 certification process, some of which FAA has adapted for drone operations by granting exemptions for rules that don't apply to drones, such as the requirement to carry the flight manuals on board the aircraft.”
“All part 135 applicants must go through the full five phases of the certification process.”
“The FAA issues air carrier certificates to U.S. applicants based on the type of services they plan to provide and where they want to conduct their operations. Operators must obtain airspace authorizations and air carrier or operating certificates before they can begin operations.”
The FAA notes that certificates are available for four types of Part 135 operations:
“Part 135 Single Pilot. A single-pilot operator is a certificate holder that is limited to using only one pilot for all part 135 operations.”
“A Single Pilot in Command certificate is a limited part 135 certificate. It includes one pilot in command certificate holder and three second pilots in command. There are also limitations on the size of the aircraft and the scope of the operations.”
“A Basic operator certificate is limited in the size and scope of their operations. Maximum of five pilots, including second in command. Maximum of five aircraft can be used in their operation.”
“A Standard operator holds a certificate with no limits on the size or scope of operations. However, the operator must be granted authorization for each type of operation they want to conduct.”
The FAA also provides a timeline of companies that were early entrants into this space:
“The FAA issued the first Part 135 Single pilot air carrier certificate for drone operations to Wing Aviation, LLC in April 2019. The FAA later issued Wing a Standard Part 135 air carrier certificate to operate a drone aircraft in October 2019. Wing Aviation is part of the Integration Pilot Program (IPP), delivering food and over-the-counter pharmaceuticals directly to homes in Christiansburg, VA.”
“UPS Flight Forward, Inc., another participant in the IPP, was the first company to receive a Standard Part 135 air carrier certificate to operate a drone aircraft. On September 27, 2019, UPS Flight Forward conducted its first package delivery by drone with its part 135 certification when it flew medical supplies at WakeMed hospital campus in Raleigh, NC.”
“Amazon, a PSP participant, is the first company to operate a drone larger than 55lbs under a standard Part 135 air carrier certificate. Amazon began commercial operations in August 2020. They currently deliver Amazon products in Oregon and Northern California, with further expansion planned for this year.”
“On June 17, 2022, Zipline became the fourth drone operator to receive a part 135 certificate to be authorized to operate as an air carrier and conduct common carriage operations. This is the first part 135 certificate issued to an operator under the BEYOND program and the first fixed wing part 135 UAS operator to be certified.”
The FAA notes that it is “currently working on additional part 135 air carrier certificate applications that have been submitted by IPP operators and one 135 application that was submitted by an FAA Partnership for Safety Plan (PSP) participant.”
Drones, Last-Mile Delivery, and Micromobility
In a whitepaper Uber commissioned from consulting firm WSP, “Future of Delivery: Unleashing the potential of micromobility for the last mile,” WSP describes the need for better last-mile options: “Demand for deliveries is surging. Relying upon cars, vans and trucks for the last mile risks clogging up our local places and adding to emissions.
Transitioning to micromobility, like e-bikes and cargo bikes, in our city centres offers an alternative that is better for people, places and businesses…”
According to its definition of micromobility vehicles, drones are one of the alternatives that might play a role: “People or electric powered, low to moderate speed, light weight vehicles such as bikes, cargo bikes, trolleys and drones.”
Among the ten “opportunities” associated with micromobility, drones fall within the recommendation to “leverage emerging technologies.”
“Emerging technologies will continue to play an important role to meet surging demand for more and quicker deliveries,” report authors write. “For the last mile, the opportunity for micromobility extends to greater use of data and technology to streamline the supply chain and distribution of freight, and the potential of drones and robots”—which are “currently being tested for viable use cases.”
The report notes that some conceptual modeling “suggests drones may be better suited for deliveries to outer suburban, rural and island communities.”
Companies Leading the Way
The following headlines offer a sample of recent news about a few of the companies leading the way in this space—along with video clips that demonstrate their offerings.
Amazon expanding drone delivery service to Texas
July 15, 2022—Amazon expanding drone delivery service to Texas: “Customers in the city of College Station are set to receive goods via Prime Air later this year, the company announced Friday.”
Wing’s Aircraft Library
July 18, 2022—Wing’s Aircraft Library: “Here at Wing we spend a lot of time thinking about how to move packages through the sky. Solving the problem of on-demand delivery will always require a variety of vehicles. …”
Zipline bringing healthcare drone deliveries to Washington state
July 25, 2022—Zipline bringing healthcare drone deliveries to Washington state: “Zipline is partnering with a not-for-profit healthcare provider to launch Washington state’s first commercial drone deliveries, according to an announcement last week. …”
This April 2018 CNBC video featuring Zipline’s work in Rwanda demonstrates how long the company has been operating in the delivery space.
Flytrex drones can more than double their reach with FAA approval
July 28, 2022—Flytrex drones can more than double their reach with FAA approval: “The company can now deliver restaurant and retail orders to 100,000 potential customers in North Carolina and Texas.”
Of course, there are many potential applications for drones beyond the delivery niches they can fill. As Matt O’Brien and Nathan Ellgren write in a July 2022 article for AP, “…some drones have recently gotten permission to soar out of their pilots’ sight. They can now inspect high-voltage power lines across the forested Great Dismal Swamp in Virginia. They’re tracking endangered sea turtles off Florida’s coast and monitoring seaports in the Netherlands and railroads from New Jersey to the rural West.”
Referencing part 107 waivers, they note that “As of early July, the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration had approved 230 such waivers — one of them to Virginia-based Dominion Energy for inspecting its network of power plants and transmission lines.” (The FAA provides an updated list of entities that have been granted various part 107 waivers).
Quoted in the article, Adam Lee, Dominion’s chief security officer, underscored the impact.
“This is the first step of what everybody’s expecting with drones,” Lee said. “The first time in our nation’s history where we’ve now moved out into what I think everyone’s expecting is coming.”
However, as O’Brien and Ellgren note, not everyone shares his enthusiasm—including “pilots of hot air balloons and other lightweight aircraft” who have safety concerns and privacy advocates who aren’t comfortable with the data that may be gathered along the way.
This AP video captures some of the pros and cons.