In United States, drone delivery is beginning to take off
Updated: Sep 9, 2021
Date : 7 September 2021
Researcher : Yip Wai Fong
Commercial drone delivery is already happening in the US under the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) Part 107 and Part 135 rules. Although the sky is open for commercial drones in the US, only a small number of companies are certified to perform unlimited flights beyond visual line of sights (BVLOS), nighttime flights, and flights in populated area. These companies have been making deliveries from medical supplies to groceries.
FAA’s certification requirements are extensive, but the broad areas are aircrafts air worthiness, maintenance standards, training programs, remote identification or “digital license plate”, operation manuals and insurance.
We are now looking into some of the certified companies for a picture of their operation so far.
Wing Aviation is a subsidiary of Alphabet, Google’s parent company and is the first that obtain the certification in 2019. Prior to the certification, Wing had conducted drone delivery trials in Australia and Finland. Its first commercial delivery was to deliver a winter vest to an elderly customer in Virginia, in October 2019. To date, Virginia remains the only ground in the US where Wing’s drone delivery services are available and its website listed six vendors including Walgreens, its test program partner to deliver food and beverages and over-the-counter medicine back in 2019.
The FAA certified UPS for drone delivery services after Wing in 2019. Its first operation was medical supplies delivery at WakeMed's hospital campus in Raleigh, NC. UPS drone delivery services is now being used by Atrium Health Wake Baptist to transport the Pfizer Covid-19 vaccines. UPS also announced plans in April 2021 to purchase 150 eVTOL aircraft from BETA Technologies, which says that its aircrafts are “designed to someday operate autonomously as technologies and regulations are established.”
Amazon’s certification for drone delivery was approved in 2020. It had started test for its drone delivery services since 2013 and launched its own line of delivery drone in 2019. Despite now having the certification, Amazon said its fleet is not yet ready for a scalable commercial service.
Flytrex is an Israeli drone delivery company now partnering with Walmart to deliver items in Fayetteville, North Carolina. It obtained FAA certification in May 2021 under the Part 107 rules, which excludes BVLOS flight. This still enable Flytrex to conduct flights over people and expands its services delivering by drones retail goods, coffee and food for more vendors in Fayetteville.
Flirtey is a US start-up drone delivery company that was the first to conduct an FAA approved drone delivery back in 2015, delivering medicine to a remote part in Virginia-Kentucky District Fairgrounds. It also had an approval in 2019 to conduct BVLOS flight to deliver medical equipment for cardiac arrest in Reno, Nevada using its specially designed drones for the payload. As it is planning to scale up its drone delivery services, Flirtey is currently an applicant to FAA to certify its new line of drones and control system for autonomous last-mile delivery.
A page out of the book for Malaysia?
The development of a conducive regulatory environment in the US for drone services is providing commercial players rooms to take their innovations out of the trials and discovering for real whether scaling up is commercially viable. The landscape for commercial drone delivery is still tentative, as major cities such as New York are still not allowing such service. Thus, widespread introduction of drones into day-to-day logistics may take several more years to come.
In Malaysia, where some of its homegrown drone companies such as Aerodyne and Teleport of AirAsia are interested to provide drone delivery services, the evolution of US’s regulation for drones and the innovations required to meet public safety standards could be the reference points for regulators look into.