2 Aug 22

Drones carrying pizza and medicine will dominate skies

Drones will be an inevitable part of the future world where various products and even organs fly over our heads to fulfil customer orders or save lives. Many pilot projects were carried out in recent years to see the potential of drone delivery, and drones are already serving e-commerce and health purposes, the main areas they are promoted for.

A 71-year-old who was saved by a drone-delivered defibrillator in Sweden after suffering a heart attack in January is a good example of the latter. For the e-commerce industry, however, several companies have already rolled up their sleeves. 

According to McKinsey, drones have completed over 660,000 commercial deliveries between 2018 and 2021. As of 2022, McKinsey says over 2,000 drone deliveries are taking place worldwide daily. At this rate, around 1,5 million drone deliveries could be completed by the end of 2022. U.S.-based retailers and technology giants are expected to lead this figure when we glance at the drone landscape. 

80 km/h at 120 m altitude

Amazon announced its drone delivery service, dubbed 'Prime Air', in 2013 and revealed a new design for drone delivery in 2019. Falling behind the expected schedule and facing setbacks due to accidents in 2021, Amazon has accelerated the R&D process. It is now preparing to start drone deliveries in College Station, Texas, in late 2022. Amazon has partnered with Texas A&M University for the project, saying that the Prime Air drones can fly 50 miles per hour (80 km/h) at an altitude of 400 feet (120 meters). In March, the tech and retail giant unveiled plans to recruit 1,300 test customers and operate 145 drone launchpads. Thus, Amazon wants to have 250 drones in the air and deliver 500 million packages per year. 

Google's 200,000th delivery 

Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, launched commercial services in the U.S. in April, while the drone delivery service also operates in Finland and Australia. In the U.S., Texas is the first state to have Wing deliveries, where customers can order from several stores. After an order, an employee of the related store places the products into a package carried by the drone. When a Wing drone arrives at its destination, it descends seven meters and lowers the package to be picked up. In March, Google said Wing had completed its 200,000th delivery. 

Walmart delivers in 30 minutes 

In 2021, the US retail chain Walmart announced that it will partner with drone start-up DroneUp to deliver orders. Launched at delivery hubs in the state of Arkansas, the drone delivery service of Walmart is serving customers seven days a week and fulfilling orders (for small packages) in less than 30 minutes, according to the company. Like Wing, the drone is operated remotely to reach its destination. Drones are quite promising for Walmart, as the company says 4,700 of its stores, packed with 100,000 of its most-purchased items, are located within 10 miles (16 kilometres) of 90% of the U.S. population. 

Pizza pie in the sky 

A drone carrying an extra large pizza is one of the best services the food delivery sector could offer, made real by Dominos Pizza in 2016. That year, Dominos and its drone start-up partner SkyDrop successfully undertook the world's first pizza delivery in New Zealand. Two companies worked hard to improve the service, and as of 2022, the SkyDrop drones can deliver pizzas up to 3.5 kg (which would mean one drone completing several orders). SkyDrop drones will operate at an altitude of 60 metres and have a parachute safety system to avoid unexpected crash landings of pizza payloads. 

What are the other prominent drone delivery projects? 

  • UPS Flight Forward partnered with autonomous drone logistics platform Matternet in 2019 to deliver medical supplies to a hospital in North Carolina. A year later, the service partnered with CVS pharmacy to provide medicines to a retirement community in Florida. 
  • Launched in Israel in 2013 as a drone manufacturer supplier, Flytrex has evolved into an end-to-end delivery service, today delivering products for retailers, restaurants and stores. So far, Flytrex has launched operations in Reykjavik, Iceland and the states of North Dakota and North Carolina in the US. 
  • Germany-based Wingcopter started its journey as a drone manufacturer, today offering deliveries as well, mainly for commercial and humanitarian purposes. Developing delivery services for many industries, including postal services and retailers, Wingcopter undertook humanitarian projects such as delivering vaccines to Vanuatu in the South Pacific Ocean and rural areas in Ireland. 
  • Zipline, dedicated to humanitarian operations, has the aim of helping anyone around the globe whenever they need medical supplies. The company has completed over 100,000 commercial deliveries so far. 
  • DHL Parcelcopter is a project being developed by the German cargo giant since 2013. The Parcelcopter can carry a payload of up to 4,4 lbs (1,8 kg) and travel at a speed of around 43 miles per hour (70 km/h). The service uses 'Parcelcopter Skyport', a fully automated parcel loading and unloading system to make it easier to deliver medical supplies in harsh regions. The 4.0 version of the DHL Parcelcopter completed 2,300 km trials in 2018 over a six-month period to deliver medicines in East Africa. 

Some obstacles to focus on

The drone delivery industry holds enormous potential and advantages for the future. They are environmentally-friendly and significantly reduce delivery times in urban areas, while also making it much easier to deliver vital goods to isolated areas. Most drone operations are not so complicated or risky either: Amazon says 86% of the deliveries include items less than 5 lbs (2,26 kg), and Walmart says 70% of the orders in the U.S. are in a five-mile (8 km) radius. So, what could go wrong in the long term? There are some obstacles to focus on: 

  • Business Insider reports at least eight crashes of Amazon drones in 2021, one of them causing a 20-acre bush fire. 
  • Resilience to range and weather conditions is a primary concern, as drone capabilities are limited today.
  • The cost of training personnel and maintaining a drone fleet will increase as drone deliveries expand globally. 
  • Security will be a major issue, as nothing guarantees that firearms or hackers won't target the drones. 

Tech giants and start-ups will make life easier through drones, but they must be 100% sure that they don't go haywire due to a cyber attack or turn upside down in mid-air while carrying pizzas.

There are a lot of technological developments that will shape the future of transportation and mobility. As technology develops, ways of moving goods and people also transform. To learn more, download Fleet Europe Magazine #129.

Main image courtesy of Amazon; first in-article image courtesy of Google; second in-article image courtesy of Domino's Pizza; fourth in-article image courtesy of Walmart.

Authored by: Mufit Yilmaz Gokmen