Connect with us

Hi, what are you looking for?

Featured image by DJI.


Drone Delivery Is Drawing Nearer, But Challenges Remain

Recent stories at Bloomberg and Axios show us that the promise of electric aviation is not only already here, but that it’s also going to expand and grow quite a bit as autonomy expands into the sky. We can learn from these stories that there are challenges which must be overcome for things like drone delivery to become a widespread reality.

Where Drones Are Right Now

The sad fact is that the technology is almost ready, but that if you want to reliably and cheaply deliver something locally, you’re better off to call a delivery driver through common apps for that. We’re just not quite able to make the switch.

Right now, the only thing a drone licensee can do is fly in line of sight, or in line of sight of a designated observer who can communicate with them. You must not only be able to see the drone as a speck in the sky, but you must also be able to tell which direction it’s facing without using telemetry or cameras on the drone. While things like aerial inspection and real estate/architectural photography are well-served by these limitations, it’s super tough to do anything like deliveries within a quarter mile or so.

Why does the FAA put these limits on drones? Because pilots need to be able to “see and avoid” other aircraft. If you can’t see your own drone and the sky around it, it’s basically impossible to take action to avoid collision with something like an EMS or police helicopter.

The Bloomberg story gives us not only an idea of what it’s like to test drone deliveries under current rules, but what efforts are underway to improve regulations and technology for drone deliveries.

Wing, a company owned by Alphabet (Google’s parent company), uses drones to make small deliveries in Christiansburg, Virginia. Not only does it have a pilot in command at the launch/landing site, but it also has an observer on a nearby hilltop watching the drones from up high. This makes it so that the FAA’s rules are always followed, and the designated pilot can take over or force an emergency landing if things get potentially dangerous. But, the drones are mostly automated.

There’s only one reason this works: they don’t have to share the skies with anybody in that community. A drone operator might show up and take pictures of a house, or a medical helicopter might occasionally come, but there aren’t hordes of autonomous drones run by different companies buzzing all over the skies making deliveries and performing other commercial services autonomously. There also aren’t any eVTOL autonomous manned aircraft operating like there will be at some point.

So, regulators are needing to figure out how this is all going to work without tragedy or injury becoming normal.

The Axios story tells us about some drone delivery trials at Walmart stores. Two stores in Northwest Arkansas have deliveries going, complete with a little folding tower for the observer to see the drones. Because of FAA limitations, deliveries are only available within a mile of the Walmart locations.

But, they’re still proving useful. Deliveries are $3.99, can be up to five pounds, and are available from 8AM to 8PM. Walmart’s partner, DroneUp, plans to offer more delivery options in the future in several states, including Florida, Virginia, Utah, Texas and Arizona.

How The FAA & NASA Are Moving Toward The Future Here

The challenges of creating technology that can make manually-controlled drones, automated drones, eVTOL craft, and anything else in the sky work together safely are many. The drones and eVTOL craft, all made by different companies running different hardware and software, all have to be able to communicate. Thousands or millions of craft will quickly get beyond something like today’s air traffic control, with humans tracking a limited number of aircraft flown by other humans over large areas.

Right now, NASA and the FAA are running computer simulations that try to figure out what such a busy aerial environment might even look like. This will not only point out what technology requirements must be met to manage it, but also gives insight into what regulations governing that busy world might have to look like.

As it stands right now, unmanned drones are probably going to operate below 400 feet, while air taxis and passenger drones will be between 500 and 5,000 feet. Away from cities with big airports, most traditional passenger and cargo aircraft would try to operate above 5,000 feet to give room for the taxis below. This would at least allow for some segregation in air traffic to increase safety.

But even those segregated spaces could quickly become crowded. Different layers of distance above ground would probably need to be assigned to different types of craft, and virtual lanes made to get around safely. Also, priority would have to go to important deliveries and public safety work over things like meals and someone who wants a beer.

One other problem the article went over was what’s going to be socially acceptable. It’s already sucky when you’ve been out partying or working on Friday night only to have some diligent neighbor start their weed whacker up at 7 AM. Will people accept having noisy propellers passing overhead at all hours? Can they be made quieter? Will some people hate seeing stuff in the sky all the time?

It worked out well in Christianburg, and people really liked having the option of drone delivery available during the worst of the pandemic, but how it works out elsewhere is an open question.

Why This Matters

It sounds easy on the surface to just say, “Hook a box up to the bottom of a drone and send it somewhere,” but we have a lot to consider before doing that. Will it be safe? Will it be affordable? Will people like it? Will it annoy too many people? How can me make sure all of the previous questions are the right ones?

So, testing continues, and we will probably find our way to the right answers. But there’s still going to be a wait.

Featured image by DJI.

Sign up for daily news updates from CleanTechnica on email. Or follow us on Google News!

Have a tip for CleanTechnica, want to advertise, or want to suggest a guest for our CleanTech Talk podcast? Contact us here.

Former Tesla Battery Expert Leading Lyten Into New Lithium-Sulfur Battery Era — Podcast:

I don't like paywalls. You don't like paywalls. Who likes paywalls? Here at CleanTechnica, we implemented a limited paywall for a while, but it always felt wrong — and it was always tough to decide what we should put behind there. In theory, your most exclusive and best content goes behind a paywall. But then fewer people read it! We just don't like paywalls, and so we've decided to ditch ours. Unfortunately, the media business is still a tough, cut-throat business with tiny margins. It's a never-ending Olympic challenge to stay above water or even perhaps — gasp — grow. So ...
If you like what we do and want to support us, please chip in a bit monthly via PayPal or Patreon to help our team do what we do! Thank you!
Written By

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.


You May Also Like


Farmers don't buy spraying drones or hire drone spraying services because of the environmental benefits, of course. They don't need to justify the use...


We all win with agricultural drones. Well, except for the services that operated the light planes and helicopters.


Recently I had the opportunity to chat with Arthur Erickson, founder and CEO of Hylio (pronounced like Helios, god of the sun, not Hi...


Drones are changing the ground under our feet. Their game-changing use in warfare has been highlighted by Russia’s murderous invasion of Ukraine, but they...

Copyright © 2023 CleanTechnica. The content produced by this site is for entertainment purposes only. Opinions and comments published on this site may not be sanctioned by and do not necessarily represent the views of CleanTechnica, its owners, sponsors, affiliates, or subsidiaries.