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.
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.
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