Remote Package Delivery by Drone Faces an Uncertain Future

Is remote package delivery by drone really the wave of the future?  The signs are conflicting.  Amazon continues to report strict oversight of its fledgling drone flights in two US locations – Lockerbie, CA and College Station, TX.  The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) is insisting that all Amazon flights be closely monitored by ground safety crews, which has kept the company from fulfilling customers orders in a timely fashion.  In fact, few Amazon customers appear to be requesting the service thus far.  Meanwhile, Walmart, which has begun its own store deliveries in more than six states and two dozen locations nationwide is facing consumer complaints of undue noise from its drones, which have been permitted to fly low over residential neighborhoods.  Walmart says it will address the problem but no real solution appears at hand.

Despite these early shortfalls, at least one drone package delivery company – Wing, owned by Alphabet – is anticipating a nationwide – and indeed global – expansion of its drone flights beyond its initial test sites.  So far, Wing has piloted its automated delivery system in Canberra, Australia; Helsinki, Finland; Christiansburg, Virginia; and the Dallas-Fort Worth area in Texas.

The Wing Delivery Network will be “a decentralized, automated system that can support high-volume drone delivery across a major metro area or a more sparsely populated region,” Wing CEO Adam Woodworth wrote in a blog post last Thursday.

Wing claims to have the most autonomous Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) delivery system of any package drone company currently on the market. In addition to drones, Wing’s system includes launching and landing pads, automated recharging stations, and auto loaders, which allows packages to be preloaded for pickup by a drone.

Another unique Wing feature is the relatively small payload – 2.6 pounds or less, compared to 5 or 10 pounds in the case of Amazon and Walmart.  Wing also delivers directly to the customer, hovering in place at an altitude of 23 feet and lowering the purchase package down to the ground with a tether.  Customers remain at least six feet away from the package drop-off point to avoid interfering with the delivery process.

Still, Wing continues to face the same obstacles other drone fliers do.  One obvious one is the weather.  Package drones typically fly during daylight hours in dry windless conditions; smaller drones especially are easily buffeted by the wind and rain.   For this reason,  states like Arkansas and Arizona may be ideal for drone package delivery, but Oregon and Washington might not be.

Another issue is the relatively small payload of package drones, which limits the kinds of goods that can be delivered – usually food, mail, medical supplies, and smaller tools and appliances.  Larger cargo drones, which are also appearing on the horizon, could prove to be more scalable over time, many industry analysts believe.  A report by McKiney released last year argued that unless package drones could be managed simultaneously by s single controller in large numbers, “last mile’” drone delivery would not realize its potential cost advantages over more traditional road and air delivery systems

And finally, there’s the regulatory environment.  As Amazon has learned to its dismay, FAA regulatory waivers do not necessarily mean the freedom to fly wherever and whenever without stringent oversight.  State and local regulation might also come into play, further hindering BVLOS flight autonomy.

There’s a general consensus that drone package deliveries will likely move ahead, but at a much slower pace than many companies expected.  As of late 2022, an estimated 6,000 package delivery flights were being conducted daily in the US, a major uptick from 2o21.

But Wing’s prediction of “millions”of its own drone flights by the end of 2024 seems highly exaggerated.  In fact, some companies that had planned to jump into the package delivery market have decided to pull back, owing to the above-noted roadblocks.

In the final analysis, consumers will have to decide whether drone package delivery is worth the aggravation of noise, potential crashes and injury,  and the sight of thousands of flying machines filling a once uncluttered sky.   Right now, despite the persistent hype, the jury is still out.

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