The automatic landing of a drone with a case for medical samples and supplies in Berlin, Germany, … [+] As the pandemic continues to rampage across the globe, forcing much of the world into a semi-shutdown, the digital economy […]
As the pandemic continues to rampage across the globe, forcing much of the world into a semi-shutdown, the digital economy has seen explosive growth. While brick-and-mortar businesses struggle to stay afloat, companies that enable deliveries and services in the home are working hard just to keep up with demand. Even with the hope of a vaccine, the realities of working, shopping, and socializing remotely may permanently reshape human behavior. This unexpected shift has created a gap for new technologies, especially those that speed up the delivery of goods. Now, more than ever is the time for drones.
The earliest concept of a drone—or unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV)—dates back to 1849, according to Interesting Engineering, when Austria launched unpiloted hot air balloons stuffed with explosives over the city of Venice. By the beginning of World War I, advancements in technology led to the development of remote controlled aircraft by a British scientist and the U.S. Army. Suddenly, UAVs went from fantasy to serious military technologies with real potential for generating revenue.
I’ve been following modern drone technology since the U.S. military began deploying UAVs for reconnaissance. This was a turning point for drones. Worldwide interest and development in UAVs led to more sophisticated models that could fly longer and at increasing heights. Since then, militaries around the world have continued to pour money into drone research, but it wasn’t until about the last ten years that the concept of drones for commercial use really caught on.
In 2013, Jeff Bezos predicted Amazon would be delivering packages with drones by 2018. While that deadline passed without Amazon packages descending from the skies, the interest in commercial drones has only gone up. Business Insider Intelligence predicts that global shipments of UAVs for the enterprise will reach 2.4 million by 2023—increasing at a 66.8% compound annual growth rate.
It’s too early to tell if the pandemic and its impact on in-person business will be the shot in the arm to propel the commercial drone market forward, but companies around the world are rushing to put forth drones that can serve numerous enterprise applications in multiple industries, including construction, agriculture, inspection and food and medicine delivery. Here are a few examples:
1. Package Delivery: Bezos’ dream of drones delivering Amazon packages is one step closer to reality. This past August, the company was granted federal approval to operate its fleet of Prime Air delivery drones. Meanwhile, Wing, Alphabet’s drone delivery service, has been making deliveries for a year in Christiansberg, VA. The contactless service, which provides residents deliveries from Walgreens, CVS, and a number of other local stores, reportedly really took off during the pandemic—a sure sign that drones may soon be making deliveries around the country as the need for social distancing drags on.
2. Food Delivery: Uber started several food delivery trials in partnership with McDonalds, including one in San Diego, but it is just one of many companies experimenting with drones for food delivery. In Alabama, Deuce Drone is expected to start deliveries from Buffalo Wild Wings and grocery chain, Rouses Markets, by the end of the year. Meanwhile, in North Dakota, golfers can get snacks delivered on the course thanks to Flytrex. The company is also testing drones for meal delivery in North Carolina. Food delivery is expected to be a huge segment for drones.
3. Medical Delivery: Earlier this year, company Zipline jumped in with its drones to help aid delivery of PPE to a Novant Health Medical Center in Charlotte, NC. The company said it was the first emergency drone logistics operation to help hospitals respond to the pandemic. Eventually drones could deliver other life-saving medical supplies, including blood, vaccines and donated organs which could make all the difference, especially in remote areas where healthcare can be more difficult to access.
Most of the elements needed to enable the widespread use of drones in the consumer and enterprise markets are available. These include, drone size, advanced navigation systems, geolocation, 2D and 3D image capturing and AI. Here’s a short list of the companies enabling the newest drone technology:
· Skydio has created an artificial intelligence system that introduces learning and decision making into autonomous drone flightpath;
· Volansi is a developer of logistics solutions for autonomous drone deliveries;
· DroneDeploy offers cloud-based drone mapping and an analytics platform;
· ALBORA Technologies provides next-generation geolocation technologies for drones.
While the technology is nearly there, we still have some major challenges to overcome before drones truly flood the sky. These include:
· better cyber security to prevent hacking and hijacking;
· a streamlined process for FAA approval of different applications;
· Ability to carry asymmetric and imbalanced payloads by smart inflight balancing;
· Enhanced drone design to mitigate in-flight rotor failure
· Robotic arms for pick-up and drop-off; and
· Delivery of multiple packages per flight rather than single delivery per mission;
Drones have been on the radar of startups and big companies for a while, but the demands of the stay-at-home economy have added a degree of urgency that wasn’t there before. In the next few years, I think advances in robotics and AI will drastically improve drone technology and allow it to truly take over tasks that are too dangerous or undesirable for humans to do. Drones are here to stay. We are at the very beginning of this technology curve which will impact almost every sector of the economy. My advice for entrepreneurs is to reach for the skies.