Testing on the use of small unmanned aerial systems (drones) for delivery services has been showing positive results. Meanwhile in the United States the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is currently working to draw up a regulatory framework.

Delivery drones: countdown to take-off

Are we about to witness a mini-revolution? The Japanese government has just authorised the use of an aerial zone over the coastal town of Chiba for field testing delivery drones. A number of flights – involving delivery of a bottle of wine from a supermarket to a nearby park and a variety of medicines on to the roof of an apartment building – have already gone smoothly. These are the first successful urban deliveries in Japan. According to the Japan Times, the city of Chiba hopes to make its drone home delivery service available to the general public in time for the summer of 2020, when Tokyo is due to host the Olympic Games

Soon a legal framework for delivery drones?

These developments – which will delight the amateur drone community – took place a few weeks after the first FAA-authorised urban drone delivery. On Friday 25 March in the town of Hawthorne, Nevada, Californian startup Flirtey sent one of its drones to deposit a packet containing food, bottled water and a first-aid kit on the porch of a house. Back in July 2015, Flirtey had already achieved the first FAA-authorised drone delivery in a rural environment. Hawthorne is a small town but it has all kinds of potential obstacles – trees, fences, high-voltage power lines, etc. – which enabled Flirtey to find out just what its unmanned aerial craft were capable of. The next, more difficult, step will be to make a delivery in a major city, where there are a far greater number of obstacles and potential risks.

Responding to the rise in online commerce

In March, the US Senate Committee on Commerce, Science, and Transportation approved a Federal Aviation Authority proposal for an amendment to current legislation and instructed the FAA to draw up regulations specifically governing the use of delivery drones within two years. The current regulatory framework is one of the main obstacles to widespread use of drones for any kind of commercial purpose as the laws governing US air space are simply not suited to these very small aerial craft. The creation of an appropriate legislative framework would allow Google, Walmart and Amazon to start rolling out their respective drone delivery ventures. Other obstacles of a more technical nature still of course need to be resolved, including noise pollution from the drones’ rotor blades and their tendency to crash to the ground from time to time.
Given that online shopping is booming in the United States – there was a 14.6% increase in e-commerce in 2015 – and now accounts for over half of total retail sales, there is a consequent need to boost physical delivery capacity. Drones appear to be a fast, low-cost means of delivery – the Amazon Prime Air programme promises delivery in just 30 minutes – which could well meet the pressing demand without further clogging up the roads.

By Guillaume Renouard