The COVID-19 pandemic has created a crushing demand for delivery so large that companies like Amazon and Instacart are hiring hundreds of thousands of workers to keep up. But one promising solution you won't see buzzing to homes with groceries is drones.
Companies like Amazon, Alphabet and countless startups have been talking about a future where we could get deliveries by drone for years now. It seems like the perfect moment for them to swoop in and offer contactless deliveries to everyone stuck inside and provide an income stream for businesses across the country. Why hasn't that been happening?
The reasons are regulatory and technical. The idea is still nascent, and prior to the pandemic, in 2018, some companies, like Alphabet subsidiary Wing and the Nevada-based startup Flirtey, were granted permission by the FAA to run some limited drone delivery operations. Under the pressures of the present moment, those companies are working to expand their efforts. And there's hope in the industry that the FAA will help them do more right now and pave the way for wider adoption for the tech in the years ahead.
"We've seen the FDA fast track the approval of drugs," said Matt Sweeny, the CEO and founder of Flirtey. "We'd love to see regulators fast track the approval of Flirtey drone delivery in order to provide technology that can help Americans in need during this pandemic."
How the pandemic is changing the drone status quo
The FAA approved several test sites across the country for autonomous drones, used for delivery, crowd control, search-and-rescue, and other use cases. In rural Virginia, Wing partnered with Virginia Tech and the state to explore delivering items from FedEx, Walgreens and local businesses by drones. (Wing also offers delivery services in a few locations in Australia and Helsinki.) In Reno, Nevada, Flirtey had been working with local first-responders to deliver defibrillators in life-or-death situations.
Although these are relatively small tests, they've started to show what could be possible on a larger scale across the country. Wing has been offering drone deliveries to the town of Christiansburg, Virginia, a town of about 22,500 people, since October. Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam enacted a stay-at-home order on March 30. After the lockdown went into effect, orders through Wing's delivery app for the town shot up.
Wing brought on new local businesses, including Brugh Coffee and Mockingbird Cafe, to offer more products to people stuck at home. In their first weekend of drone deliveries, Mockingbird sold 50% more pastries and Brugh twice as much cold brew as they would over a regular weekend, a representative for Wing told Protocol. Across all its global delivery locations, Wing saw a roughly 350% month-on-month increase in the number of sign-ups for its service, the company added.
In Christiansburg, the increase in users has primarily come from word-of-mouth, said Keith Heyde, the city manager for Wing. "We've seen folks request our services because their neighbors have it," Heyde said.
For local businesses, Wing's service is a much-needed outlet to serve people as social distancing rules remain in place. Luke Brugh, the owner of Brugh Coffee, told Protocol that he'd been thinking of adding his business to Wing for a while (many local Wing employees are regulars of his coffee shop, he said), but the pandemic helped spur his decision to join. He brings his cans of cold brew coffee and bags of freshly roasted beans to Wing's depot in the heart of Christiansburg every morning, and customers can order his products through Wing's app. A Wing worker loads up a drone and sends it off to the customer, where it'll hover over the chosen delivery destination and lower the package down on a tether.
The response, Brugh said, has been "awesome." When asked why he chose Wing over other delivery options — like Uber Eats — he argued that speed and novelty are powerful drivers. "It's just so quick: You place an order and it seems like within 10 minutes, you already have what you ordered in your hand," Brugh said. "It still blows my mind that drone delivery is a thing."
Even with the surge in demand, Wing has been able to cope without much issue, Heyde said. "From an operational perspective, we were well-prepared for it," he added. The drones fly over 75 mph and only have a delivery radius covering a few thousand houses in the area, so no one delivery takes very long.
Beyond Wing, other U.S. drone delivery companies want to be doing more than they currently can. "At a time where 100 million Americans are under a stay-at-home order, the demand for on-demand delivery is skyrocketing," Flirtey's Sweeny told Protocol. "We have a technology that can help provide contactless delivery, and we strongly believe that the government needs to be urgently looking at drone delivery as a means to slow down this pandemic before millions more become infected."
"One of the FAA's focuses is to enable drone delivery to roll out based on population density; there's lower risk to society in areas of low population density," Sweeny said. "Even New York and LA have low population density right now, and imagine the benefits that could result from routine drone delivery." Indeed, there are fewer people out and about for a drone to crash into.
Flirtey has been making deliveries at the Tahoe-Reno Industrial Center, which houses several major factories, including Tesla's Gigafactory. Sweeny said that the company has an application out to start offering food and beverage delivery in the area, which he hopes will show how the technology can be used across the country.
One U.S. drone-delivery success story has barely flown in its own country. Zipline, which uses a proprietary fixed-wing drone to deliver medical supplies over massive distances, has been operating in Africa since 2016, primarily in Rwanda and Ghana. Its drones deliver blood and other life-saving medical supplies to community hospitals that are cut off from the medical access found in major cities. In October, it worked with the U.S. Department of Defense to see if it would be possible to use its technology to deliver medical supplies to soldiers in combat, and set up a "forward deployed" system at a training exercise with the Marines in Australia.
Zipline wants to bring the system it designed for the military to the U.S. to help alleviate some of the strain on hospitals that the pandemic has caused. Justin Hamilton, a spokesperson for the company, told Protocol that Zipline had inbound requests from several hospitals and states, and is trying to figure out a solution that could be put in place soon.
"We're helping other countries abroad deal with COVID-19, but this is a time of crisis. We're an American company, and we want to help our country, too," Hamilton said. "We're working very closely with the FAA, and we believe they want to help, and if given the green light, we could begin operating within a few weeks."
What the future holds
With Zipline, scope isn't an issue: It already covers hundreds of miles of land in Africa each day, and has completed over 35,000 deliveries to date. Other companies may struggle to scale up to offer drone deliveries across the U.S. if they could do so tomorrow, but the main issue isn't capacity — it's that the regulations aren't set up to really allow these sorts of use cases for drones.
Before the pandemic, the FAA had been working on pilot tests that allow for things like autonomous drone deliveries, but it was never likely that they would result in sweeping regulatory changes in 2020. Jonathan Rupprecht, an aviation lawyer who focuses on the drone industry, said that it would likely be another "year or two" before the FAA would have figured out its plans for allowing drone operators to fly over people, let alone allowing drones to fly themselves places.
Currently, the only way to get approval to use drones to deliver goods is to apply for a waiver from the FAA and prove that it's an emergency. That's usually meant things like search-and-rescue missions, or getting medical equipment to people cut off by a forest fire, rather than your morning cup of coffee. According to Rupprecht, drone delivery companies would have to show that what they're doing could classify as an emergency situation, which seems like a tough sell. "It's kind of this weird scenario," Rupprecht said.
The FAA publishes the list of waivers to its regulations that it has granted drone operators. For the most part, they're for fire departments, transportation departments or other government agencies, or people just looking to be able to fly their drones at night — another thing the FAA doesn't currently allow. Rupprecht said he sees certain life-saving applications of drone deliveries — like organ transplants, or blood deliveries like Zipline wants to do — having more of a chance of getting approved by the FAA. For more-general deliveries, Rupprecht echoed what many in the drone community have said: that Remote ID — the FAA's plan for virtual license plates for most drones — would have to be rolled out before the agency would consider widespread drone deliveries. Even then, locations would likely still have to be approved on a case-by-case basis. "There's a very site-specific analysis that needs to be done," he added. "The FAA is very not clear on what they want."
When asked whether the FAA would reconsider its current policies on drone deliveries, a representative for the administration said: "The FAA is enabling drone use for COVID-19 response efforts within our existing regulations and emergency procedures. The FAA's small unmanned aircraft rule (Part 107) allows operators to transport goods and certain medical supplies — including test kits, most prescription drugs and, under certain circumstances, blood — provided that the flight complies with all provisions of the rule."
The agency is trying to be as responsive as possible to emergency requests and small-scale community operations that could help out local areas. "The FAA also issues special approvals for flights that support emergency activities and appropriate government, health or community initiatives, some of which are issued in less than an hour," the spokesperson said. But there wasn't any indication that the FAA was prepared to change its regulations for any wide-ranging drone use because of the pandemic.
"I do think that the technology is ready to do a lot more," said Jonathan Bass, Wing's VP of marketing and communications. "This is what a commercial delivery service looks like."
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Whether Christiansburg ends up being a blueprint for a drone-delivery service that Wing would offer across the U.S. remains to be seen. In the near term, the company isn't looking to add any new U.S. delivery sites, Bass said, and instead would be focusing on the feedback it's gotten from users in Christiansburg for how to make the service better. And adding toilet paper to the service has been a godsend to local residents, the company said.