Dr. Robert Gordon


Why is the general adoption of drone delivery taking so long? In the futuristic world depicted by science fiction writers, drones are often featured as part and parcel of everyday life.

Today, this future is steadily materializing. Thanks to rapid technological advancements and regulation changes, drones are no longer just playthings or tools for capturing aerial footage. They are becoming an integral part of an emerging delivery ecosystem.

The promise of drone technology has tantalized tech enthusiasts for years. In 2013, Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon®, announced that his company planned to launch a drone delivery service called Prime Air®, according to CBS News. This service would use drones to drop packages at customers’ doorsteps within 30 minutes of ordering.

The announcement sparked considerable excitement about the future of logistics and delivery. Now, a decade later, drone delivery remains largely elusive. While Jeff Bezos may have gone to space in the interim, terrestrial drone deliveries still remain on the horizon.

For the past 10 years, most drone delivery companies have been bogged down in the testing and implementation phase in many parts of the world. Although some companies have made progress and others are making limited deliveries, Amazon’s Prime Air, Google’s Wing Aviation, UPS’s Flight Forward®, and other businesses are still testing drone delivery systems to transport goods from the retailer to the customer.

The allure of these technologies lies in their potential to provide rapid, reliable, and efficient delivery services that significantly reduce transit time. They are also eco-friendlier than traditional methods.

The Biggest Challenges of Drone Delivery

The biggest problem facing drone delivery has been regulatory challenges. The primary hurdle Amazon’s Prime Air (and others) have faced is regulatory issues.

The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) sets rules and regulations regarding commercial drone usage in the United States. For several years after Amazon’s Prime Air’s announcement, the FAA did not permit drones to fly beyond the operator’s visual line of sight, carry loads, or perform night flights.

Only in 2020 did the FAA start relaxing some of these rules. Moreover, Amazon had to wait until August 2020 to receive Part 135 certification, allowing it to operate as an “air carrier” under FAA regulations. These delays have significantly impacted Prime Air’s development and deployment timeline.

Another significant challenge is technology. Even though drone technology has advanced rapidly, there are still substantial challenges to overcome.

A significant concern is ensuring the safety of drones and the public, especially in densely populated areas. Autonomous drones must navigate obstacles, deal with varying weather conditions and carry payloads without failure.

While Amazon has showcased drones capable of these feats, their widespread application is more challenging. Furthermore, drones have limited range and capacity, limiting their use compared to traditional delivery methods.

The range limitation determines how much the drone can lift, compared to its battery power. The larger the drone’s batteries, the heavier the drone becomes, which reduces the payload that a drone can carry. Since Amazon does not have distribution centers next door to every neighborhood, a drone will need sizable batteries to deliver products to customers.

Although Amazon has patented a distribution center blimp according to CNBC, the likelihood of it building such a craft is very low. The challenge has been to make a drone that can make deliveries over the required distances.

Privacy Concerns and Drones

Privacy advocates have noted that there are privacy concerns about drones flying over residential areas, according to the Electronic Frontier Foundation. Many people are uncomfortable with drones potentially recording video or taking photos of them during their delivery routes, even if unintentionally.

Ironically, people are okay with Ring® doorbells regularly filming their neighbors. Also, Google Maps vehicles have recorded tons of videos of people doing various things in public, but that is somehow not a privacy concern.

Despite the perceived encroachment on privacy, the public still has concerns about drone filming, and this public unease translates into another hurdle that drones must overcome. Perhaps the use of drones by law enforcement, as noted by Spectrum News, has eroded the public trust in any use of drones.

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Where Is Drone Delivery Actually Happening?

Where exactly are drones delivering items today? Drones are used in various ways but they impact emergency services the most. Drones can deliver life vests, medical supplies or defibrillators in critical situations faster than traditional methods.

A notable example is the AED drone delivery service in Sweden, which aims to provide rapid response for cardiac arrests in areas where ambulances may take longer to arrive says SUAS News. Similarly, Zipline has been pioneering drone deliveries of medical supplies in Utah, notes Fierce Healthcare.

Drones also have been making deliveries in rural Africa. Zipline drones have delivered vital medicines and blood to remote areas in Rwanda that are otherwise hard to reach, according to Wired.

As interesting as drones have been for medical reasons, urban drone delivery is what people are waiting for. Drones offer an attractive solution for the final step of the delivery process from a distribution center to the end user. It’s often the most complex and expensive part of the delivery process, and drones can potentially streamline it.

According to Dronelife, Alphabet’s Wing has been conducting trials in parts of Virginia, delivering small items like food, beverages and over-the-counter pharmacy items. However, substantial challenges exist here, including navigating dense cityscapes and maintaining safety and privacy standards.

Walmart® has been the one company that has moved forward with drone deliveries. Walmart has positioned its drone delivery to accommodate deliveries to four million customers, and it has made drone deliveries and also has the capacity to make up to a million deliveries per year. Amazon might have come up with the idea, but Walmart is making drone delivery a reality in the U.S.

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When Will Drones Deliver to Everyone’s Home in the US?

While the prospect of drones quickly delivering our orders is exciting, it’s essential to note that we are still in the early days of drone technology. There are significant regulatory hurdles to be crossed, and safety and privacy issues need to be comprehensively addressed. Drone technology needs further refinement to operate in diverse weather conditions and to handle various payloads.

Nevertheless, the progress made so far in drone delivery is promising, and it seems likely that drone delivery will become more common in the coming years. As this technology continues to evolve, it promises to revolutionize our lives, redefine e-commerce, and profoundly reshape the logistics and delivery landscape.

Today, drones might be in the sky capturing footage or in the testing stages of drone delivery. Tomorrow, they might be an integral part of our daily lives, buzzing overhead, carrying our packages and connecting us in ways we can only begin to imagine.

The vision of drones delivering packages within minutes of an order remains compelling. With drone delivery, Amazon or Walmart could revolutionize the retail and logistics industry, reduce delivery times, cut costs, and provide services to hard-to-reach locations.

While Amazon has not yet fully realized this vision, the pieces of drone delivery are starting to come together. It may take more time than initially expected, but the path to regular drone deliveries seems to be clearing. The promise of personal drone deliveries that was once thought to be science fiction is now a near-term reality – a testament to the power of innovation, patience and regulatory progress.

Amazon and Prime Air are registered trademarks of Amazon Technologies, Inc.

UPS Flight Forward is a registered trademark of United Parcel Service of America, Inc.

Ring is a registered trademark of Amazon Technologies, Inc.

Walmart is a registered trademark of Walmart Apollo LLC.