A few years ago, a regular stream of Amazon Prime patents and test flight clips from burgeoning aerial taxi services were enough to grab headlines on a weekly basis.
Prototypes and concept designs were in no short supply, the only question was when. When would these futuristic ideas move past the promotional bluster and become reality?
In the past few months we’ve seen genuine steps towards what has long been promised. Sure, passenger drone services are still some way off – although that’s not stopping companies building docking stations in anticipation. But it’s fair to say drone delivery is well and truly here.
Thanks to advancing technology, more flexible regulations and, in the United States at least, a range of ambitious pilot programs, we’re seeing all sorts drone delivery services get underway.
2019: The Year of Drone Delivery?
So far 2019 has been the year drone deliveries took off.
We’ve seen trials before of course, as well as the established operations from companies including Zipline. But progress has accelerated and there have been a host of industry firsts in recent months.
Towards the start of the year, the biggest stories were less about flying burgers on demand and more delivering in an industrial context. In March, Airbus and Wilhelmsen launched delivery trials at a port in Singapore.
The drones carried 1.5kg of cargo more than a mile along pre-determined ‘aerial-corridors’ – ferrying vital supplies between the shore and ships out at sea.
Later that month, UK drone delivery infrastructure startup Skyports contributed to a successful drone delivery trial in Finland. And then, a matter of days later, Google got in on the action.
Google’s Project Wing has long been focused on developing (since 2012, which is practically millennia in this industry) drones for delivering goods to remote areas. In April, the company announced that authorization had been granted to launch turn delivery trials in Canberra, Australia, into a fully-fledged service open to the public.
Now, Wing customers can order fresh food, hot coffee and over-the-counter chemist items through a mobile app, which are then delivered via drone in a matter of minutes.
Within days of the success of Project Wing, more good news came from another drone delivery pioneer: Zipline. In April, the company unveiled the largest vaccine drone delivery network in the world in Ghana, following on from similar projects in Rwanda and Tanzania.
As spring turned to summer, DHL and Ehang partnered to develop a drone delivery solution that will aim to tackle last-mile delivery challenges in China.
And the German giant wasn’t the only logistics provider to get in on the action. UPS, the world’s largest package delivery company announced the launch of a drone delivery subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, in July, before going on to receive a full Part 135 Standard certification from the FAA to operate a drone airline in the US.
Around the same time, Project Wing landed in the United States, having been granted similar approval in the spring. Wing has started delivering consumer packages in Virginia, becoming the first company to operate a commercial air delivery service via drone directly to homes in the US.
As we move beyond the trial phase in many of these consumer drone delivery examples, it’s a great time to take stock and realize how far we’ve come.
With improving autonomy and the foundations of UTM being worked on around the world. who knows what developments could be around the corner.