Delivery by Drone: From Novelty to Necessity in Times of Change

Drones are already delivering critical drugs, Walmart orders, and pizza. In the next 20 years, they'll change entire cities. Learn how shifting regulations and advances in technology will enable change.

By Danny Bradbury, Contributor

For the people of Christiansburg, Virginia, getting everyday household items delivered by drone used to be a novelty. Then, when the COVID-19 pandemic took hold, it became more of a necessity.

Since October 2019, Walgreens has been piloting a drone delivery program for people in the area in collaboration with FedEx and Wing, the drone subsidiary of Google’s parent company Alphabet, based on its proximity to Virginia Tech, which has been testing drones with Wing since 2016. The project began with around 100 items covering essential needs like single rolls of toilet paper and not-so-essential ones like candy. Customers could order a “baby pack” with items like children’s ibuprofen and water, or cough and cold care packages containing all the medicines you need while stuck on the couch.

“We saw a significant increase in delivery during COVID-19,” explains Andrea Farris, the chain’s VP of special projects, customer experience and store technology, adding that the company has made hundreds of drone deliveries since the project. “Drone delivery increased five-fold over the same period in February.”

Walgreens is a prime example of how drone technology can adapt to help cope with difficult situations. The company began its venture as a way to make deliveries more convenient. With 78 percent of the U.S. population living within five miles of a Walgreens store, it was testing a way to cover unique situations like parents who couldn’t leave the house because of sick children at home.

As the COVID-19 crisis grew, however, the company began serving people who didn’t want to venture out during the shelter-at-home period. It expanded its selection of items to 155, including individual rolls of bathroom tissue for families who had been left without. It started making items such as children’s crayons and sidewalk chalk available for parents working from home and caring for children.

Making Difficult Deliveries Commonplace

Walgreens’ readiness to deliver by drone during social distancing may have been a happy accident, but some experts hope that drone deliveries will help bridge the gap in other instances. Drone company Matternet, for instance, is targeting a specific use case: healthcare.

“In places where speed of delivery matters, there’s no better way to get things delivered than by air,” explains CEO Andreas Raptopoulos.

The hospitals that Matternet targets often have departments in different buildings spread throughout campus. They frequently need to exchange time-critical medical supplies or samples for lab tests. Matternet installs drone stations at each building, enabling staff to mount the supplies on a quadcopter drone that flies up to five pounds of cargo up to 12.5 miles along a preset path. It cuts the time to deliver an item from one point to another from hours to a predictable 15 minutes, Raptopoulos says.

The company began its work in Switzerland, using drones to deliver lab samples for University Hospital Zurich. It now ferries samples between buildings at WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, in collaboration with UPS, cutting waiting times on test results for patients and healthcare professionals.

Matternet has also worked to help one of the most vulnerable communities in the COVID-19 crisis: seniors. Its M2 drone system delivers medical prescriptions from a CVS pharmacy to The Villages in Florida, which is one of the largest U.S. retirement communities with 135,000 residents.

“It solves the problem of someone going to the store and being exposed to the virus, or having a delivery service coming into their community,” explains Raptopoulos. “It’s about protecting a vulnerable population from contracting the virus.”

Reaching Inaccessible Locations

Other scenarios focus on deliveries to remote areas where conventional truck rolls might be slow and expensive. In one test, DHL trialed delivering parcels to a mountain plateau community in Germany via drone, shortening transportation times from 30 minutes to eight.

German company Wingcopter combines the need for speed and reach in its work on the African continent. It has used fixed-wing drones that take off vertically but fly horizontally to give them a far longer range and speed than helicopter-style drones, flying up to 75 miles at speeds of up to 150 mph to deliver medical supplies in Malawi, which is among the poorest countries in the world.

Infrastructure issues can delay deliveries of medical supplies to remote places by days, explains company spokesperson Thomas Dreiling. “Quite often the supplies don’t arrive in time,” he says, adding that they may also get too warm during transit, making them unusable. “Also, remote healthcare centers sometimes lack electricity so that they can’t keep their medicines cold.”

In May 2020, Wingcopter won a COVID-19 hackathon that gave it the funding for an 18-month project to distribute coronavirus test kits in Malawi and Rwanda. It hopes that this will help limit the spread of the virus in the region by catching and isolating cases early. The network could also deliver a vaccine to remote areas when it becomes available.

Sticking to the Rules

Companies trying to deliver a drone-powered future face several challenges, one of which is regulatory. The U.S.’s Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has stricter rules than many other regulators, prohibiting flights beyond a human operator’s line of sight and those that travel above densely populated areas.

The regulations are there for good reason, warns Dr. Jose Holguin-Veras, director of the Center of Excellence for Sustainable Urban Freight Systems. “In New York City you have these building canyons with unpredictable wind patterns,” he says, warning that these could cause drones to veer off course.

If more drones cram into dense city areas, coordinating them could also be a problem. NASA has been working with the FAA on an unmanned aircraft system traffic management project to accommodate these scenarios.

In the meantime, the FAA has granted some licenses. To accomplish projects like the Walgreens trial, Wing and FedEx are participating in an FAA Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program. Meanwhile, UPS also has a license to operate, and Amazon recently won FAA certification to trial commercial flights for its Prime Air service, which will one day deliver packages to customers by drone.

While some companies tackle the task of flying drones on ad hoc routes to deliver packages to homes, Matternet is sticking to predefined routes between fixed drone stations, which Raptopoulos says are easier to manage.

As the industry tackles these challenges, Raptopoulos envisages a drone industry that will expand from high-value, time-sensitive items through to more general logistics and even to people carriers. “We believe that drone delivery is going to have a very important role to play in serving these on-demand transportation problems.”