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Drone Delivery: When can we expect our parcels to land?

If Amazon's recent approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate their fleet of Prime Air delivery drones is anything to go by, the answer may be yes.

This landmark achievement allows Prime Air, Amazon's unmanned delivery service, to develop their technology further. Prime Air's Vice President, David Carbon, has said: "We will continue to develop and refine our technology to fully integrate delivery drones into the airspace, and work closely with the FAA and other regulators around the world to realize our vision of 30-minute delivery."

Does this milestone open the floodgates, ready for other innovative, contactless delivery services to follow suit? With a 30-minute delivery to contend with, traditional man-in-a-van services will undoubtedly be rife for disruption. What does this development mean for the future of drone delivery?

This article will explore those questions, alongside what fuel is needed to make humanless delivery work.

Drone Delivery: Who is already doing it?

Drone delivery is not just something Amazon has cooked up. In April 2019, Alphabet-owned startup, Wing, became the first drone delivery company to gain the Federal Aviation Administration's approval to make commercial deliveries in the US, usurping Prime Air by an entire year. Which begs the question - why are we not seeing more of this technology in the mainstream?

The route to drone delivery is not linear, and by no means fast. Bloomberg reported that Wing obtained the regulator's go-ahead after the successful fulfillment of many of the safety requirements requested of a traditional airline, and are now in receipt of "the legal authority to begin dropping products to actual customers."

In October 2019, UPS was granted the first broad FAA approval for drone delivery, which permits them to fly at night and carry cargo heavier than 55 pounds. At the moment, this allowance is being used to deliver packages to hospital campuses. Still, UPS CEO David Abney says there is a view to expand this service to other campus-type environments and homes in the future.

It seems that drone delivery, much like driverless cars, is more than a passing trend - and it will only get bigger from here.

Drone Roadmap: When will it happen?

With Amazon's roots for drone delivery leading us back into 2013, the roadmap seems unclear as to when we can expect to receive a parcel dropped on our doorsteps by something other than a human. Upon their FAA approval, Amazon commented that "while the Prime Air fleet isn't ready to immediately deploy package deliveries at scale, it's actively flying and testing the technology."

Prime Air's approval allows for deliveries in areas with low population density and packages weighing five pounds or less - a considerable amount smaller and to a tighter geographic circle than UPS's broad approval as cited above. However, Reuters reported in November 2020 that Prime Air had laid off dozens of staff working on the project due to internal reorganization, sparking concern for the future of the delivery service.

What are the barriers to entry?

 Unsurprisingly, consumers have already raised security concerns from drone cameras used to locate their houses. There is also the inevitable loss of jobs for delivery drivers, many of whom would lose their existing jobs at the robotic hands of a humanless drone.

Thankfully, that concern is small, affecting only around 18% of online shoppers. Customers save their worry for more commonplace challenges to drone delivery, like damage to packages or theft. 

In May 2020, Wired published an article titled: 'No, Amazon Won't Deliver You a Burrito by Drone Anytime Soon.' Reporting on a UPS subsidiary, Flight Forward and drone company Matternet joined forces to deliver specialty medicines and protective equipment between two facilities, less than half a mile apart. The article cited multiple flaws in their technology - mostly, a high proportion of human involvement needed for something which is, by its very nature, a humanless endeavor - like specialized drone pilots and visual observers who watch the drones as they pass through the sky and hopefully not in the path of any oncoming air traffic. This particular model was deemed unscalable by Matternet's CEO, Andreas Raptopoulos.

Not only that, but drones increase in efficiency when fueled with accurate location data or geocoordinates. In the case of drone delivery, precise address data is required to accurately plot factors such as delivery route, package deployment, and retrieval. Without a great understanding of global addressing complexities, access to clean customer data, and compliance with local drone ordinances and state by state laws, large-scale drone delivery won't be realized for years down the line.

Where we are most likely to see drone prevalence is in the medical and pharmaceutical sectors, at a much faster rate than commercial at-home deliveries. Business Insider suggests that Alphabet and Amazon should pair up with retailers to provide their services, else they run the risk of falling behind with the likes of Walmart, who is said to be "perfectly positioned to dominate the commercial drone industry thanks to its giant network of stores in the US."

The crucial need for reliable location data

The adoption of drones has grown substantially in sectors such as agriculture, telecommunications, utilities, and even insurance. Any industry that requires precise location data points to operate can use drones to raise time- and cost-efficiency. While there are many rules when it comes to drone size and flight patterns, many can carry and deliver sizeable packages directly to a customer's backyard or garage if requested. Drones can fly over crowded streets and speedily maneuver around obstacles to deliver in areas where traditional delivery trucks cannot reach. 

But, one thing is for sure: drone delivery will fall flat without precise geolocation coordinates. High-quality data sets and geocoding solutions can empower drone technology to determine distances between locations accurately; use ZIP codes to pinpoint areas; or display locations on a map or GIS applications. With manned delivery, basic human instinct comes into play if a road isn't exactly where the GPS says it should be or leads you down a street and into a dead-end. Where a human can mitigate these changes, unmanned delivery drones cannot.

With drone delivery set to be an essential step forward in the speed at which medical supplies reach hospitals and treatment centers, accuracy of delivery is paramount. No matter how good the technology is, the proof lies in the execution of the service: and that all hinges on quality location data.

Loqate's Global Partner Program can ensure that your data contains correct address information - globally. Built by aggregating multiple data sources into a single, master reference to any location worldwide; our solutions support the capture and maintenance of accurate, verified, and standardized address data.

To learn how our Global Partner Program can help your organization scale its drone programs and enhance the precision and value of any geospatially-aware application, contact our partner team here.

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