From what television commercials would have viewers believe, package deliveries by unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are right around the corner. In a recent advertisement by Audi AG, rogue delivery drones chase after terrified people in a not-so-distant dystopian future. In another by Amazon, singer-dancers chime about Prime Air shipping through drones. However, the reality is far more complex – constrained by numerous challenges such as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and technological capabilities.
While potentially alarming for some, the first UAV delivery trials have already begun. This past July, Australian startup Flirtey received FAA approval and flew medical supplies from an airfield to an isolated clinic in rural Virginia. Most drone delivery efforts to date have similarly involved urgently-required supplies and remote, inaccessible destinations.
However, the application that garners the most public interest is certainly commercial package delivery. In addition to Amazon, businesses such as Google, UPS, and Fedex have all been in various stages of UAV development and integration. These companies are severely limited by present FAA regulations, which dictate drone operators must maintain direct line of sight at all times. Although the FAA has begun exploring extended and beyond lines of sight through its Pathfinder initiative program, UAVs currently cannot stray more than a couple miles from their pilots – rendering most delivery scenarios inoperative. The FAA additionally prohibits flying UAVs over densely-populated areas, which would limit drone deliveries to mainly rural regions.
Although UAVs are often envisioned flying autonomously in swarms across cities, present-day registration, flight corridors, and air regulations are practically non-existent. While some startups such as SkyWard are collaborating with NASA to create a low-attitude air traffic network, nothing truly functioning has arisen. UAV deliveries are further limited by battery life (20-30 mins) and weigh capacity (~5 lbs), which have to closely monitored lest costly or possibly even deadly damage occur.
Despite “sci-fi-esque” appeal, prevailing authorization and technical obstacles will likely prevent drone delivery from becoming a widespread reality in the near-immediate future. Though the FAA is set to release updated UAV guidelines later this year, recent incidents of drones falling into public crowds and potentially delivering illicit materials to prison inmates suggest regulation will continue to be an issue. For now, the many groundbreaking and feasible applications of UAVs will have to suffice.
While we have great interest in the potential of drone deliveries, DroneView Technologies is a leading provider of Aerial Imaging, Data Analytics and Geospatial Solutions for commercial customers throughout the United States.