Urbanism Next
University of OregonUniversity of Oregon

Drones and Personal Delivery Devices

Drones are becoming increasingly common, yet regulations and infrastructure surrounding them often struggle to keep up.

Drones are autonomous, semi-autonomous, or remote-controlled vehicles used for a variety of purposes, from package delivery and logistics to scientific research and military activities. Drones can be terrestrial, aerial, or even aquatic in nature, though terrestrial and aerial drones are the most common types to date. Of these, package delivery and logistical drones have the most significant effect on urban design and form. While no clear universally defined distinction between drones and other types of autonomous vehicles (AVs) currently exists, drones are typically considerably smaller than other AVs and are not replicating the function of vehicles such as cars and trucks.

Variables to consider

Aerial and terrestrial drones

Aerial and terrestrial drones are the two primary drone types in operation today. Both types have similar operational histories, with some of the earliest aerial drones developed during the first World War, and some of the earliest models of terrestrial drones followed shortly thereafter. Beyond the obvious difference of either operating in the air or on the ground, aerial and terrestrial drones typically have different strengths, weaknesses, and uses. Aerial drones are generally faster, but often have a more limited payload than terrestrial drones while also typically requiring more space for takeoff and landing. They are also subject to different regulations, including FAA approval. Terrestrial drones, meanwhile, can more easily carry heavier payloads and often take up less space, usually at the cost of a lower operating speed and a shorter operational range. Depending on the size and operating speed, terrestrial drones may operate on sidewalks, in bike lanes, or in the road. Terrestrial drones that operate on sidewalks are often referred to as Personal Delivery Devices (PDDs) to distinguish them from other types.

Delivery and logistics

For much of their history, drones have primarily been used for military, law enforcement, and media purposes. In the last few years, however, companies such as Amazon and Google have begun developing aerial drones intended for use in both consumer package delivery and high-priority logistics and freight deliveries, such as quickly moving supplies between medical facilities. Others, such as Uber and Postmates, are developing drones that can deliver restaurant or grocery orders directly to customers. These delivery drones are being developed either through in-house research and development or through partnering with technology companies, and include both terrestrial and aerial drones. Some companies, such as Uber, are also making some efforts toward developing drones to act as air taxis. NURO has been working to perfect grocery and goods delivery with a vehicle that operates on streets, while companies like Starship Technologies and Kiwibot have focused on meal delivery with small PDDs that operate on sidewalks.

Levels of control

Drones may be  remote-controlled, semi-autonomous, or fully autonomous. Remote-controlled drones are the most common and oldest drone type, ranging from remote-controlled toys to aerial photography and videography drones. Some PDDs currently in operation are entirely controlled by remote operators. Semi-autonomous drones are the second most common drone type, and operate with limited or ad hoc remote operator input, such as when an otherwise autonomous delivery drone encounters a scenario it doesn’t understand and signals an operator to manually resolve the situation. In the case of PDDs, they may operate autonomously while on a sidewalk but a remote operator takes over when the PDD crosses an intersection. Fully autonomous drones arguably doesn’t yet exist or are in their infancy, much like the current state of AVs. However, once in operation, these drones would be able to function completely without ongoing human input.

Innovation Drivers

Drones can operate in less congested spaces. Aerial drones can avoid traffic congestion entirely when making deliveries, allowing for faster deliveries while also avoiding contributing to street congestion. Terrestrial drones, meanwhile, are primarily designed to operate on sidewalks and footpaths, similarly allowing them to avoid street congestion, though several operate in traffic or in the bike lane. Similar principles could be applied to air taxi drones should they be developed. Additionally, aerial drones in particular can be used to quickly deliver time-sensitive packages and freight to hospitals, and areas otherwise outside of conventional delivery range, such as rural communities or areas that have recently suffered a natural disaster.

Drones are much less expensive for operators compared to conventional freight and delivery services. Most drone designs are electric-powered, allowing operators to save on fuel costs, and as automation increases, personnel needs will correspondingly decrease. While courier network services (CNSs) such as Postmates claim that they foresee delivery drones supplementing rather than replacing human delivery drivers, some industry estimates suggest that delivery drones could account for over 80% of all last-mile deliveries within the next 15 years.

Drones may  be more environmentally sustainable than conventional delivery and freight vehicles. Due largely to the fact that most drones are electric, operating these vehicles in lieu of conventional fossil fuel-based fleets may  reduce greenhouse gas emission levels. However, how much of a net positive effect drones will have on emission levels overall will vary by location, as drones still must be recharged using existing power grids.

A Starship personal delivery device on a sidewalk

Photo via Wing Press Kit.

Barriers

Current infrastructure may be inadequate to fully capitalize on the potential advantages offered by drones. With most drone designs currently powered by electric engines, and with current designs requiring frequent recharging, lack of charging stations could limit effective ranges. While this could potentially change with a wider adoption of electric vehicles and a subsequent increase in charging stations, current charging requirements could necessitate more small warehouses. More warehouses, in turn, could largely undermine the environmental benefits offered by widespread drone deployment. Additionally, most residential and commercial plots are not designed to accept deliveries from drones, particularly aerial drone variants designed to land during delivery.

Drones pose significant privacy and safety concerns inherent to their operations, particularly aerial drones. Drones are heavily reliant on a variety of instruments for their operation, including GPS, cameras, LiDAR, microphones, and infrared sensors. As a result, they could capture a significant amount of personal information in the course of their operations. With this data being sent to drone operators, valid concerns around privacy and how that data is used could arise. Additionally, as drones get heavier and heavier, collisions with humans becomes an increasingly dangerous possibility, as do increasingly complex interactions with other road users  in the case of terrestrial drones.

Existing regulations are often insufficient for new drone usage, particularly aerial delivery drones. Current drone regulations in the United States require that drones remain within line-of-sight of the operator, with exceptions only recently being granted on a case-by-case basis. Additionally, regulations on drone payload limits and safety measure requirements are also in flux, with some of the lower payload restrictions making drone delivery untenable.

Key players

Technology and e-commerce companies such as Google, FedEx and Amazon have been heavily investing in drone technologies. While Amazon’s Prime Air project has been tangled up in regulatory and design hurdles, Wing—formerly a Google division, now a full company—has been using drones to make limited deliveries. Other, smaller technology companies, such as Starship Technologies, have also been active in drone development.

Shipping and shipping manufacturing companies are also actively participating in drone development. Airbus has been developing an urban package and limited-range freight service called Skyways, for example, and recently concluded trial runs in Singapore. UPS, meanwhile, has already deployed Flight Forward, a drone service that has been delivering medical supplies and is looking to expand into other forms of package delivery.

Transportation network companies (TNCs) and courier network services (CNSs) are developing both aerial and terrestrial drones. Uber, for example, is planning on using aerial drones to fulfill some of its restaurant order deliveries through its Uber Eats program, and is also planning on offering air taxi services in the future. Postmates, now owned by Uber, is working on developing a terrestrial delivery drone fleet intended to supplement its delivery network, relying on the small, compact vehicles for shorter-range deliveries in dense urban areas.

Use case examples

Companies are using drones for time-sensitive deliveries. While widespread commercial business-to-consumer deliveries are not yet happening, business-to-business and logistical deliveries are becoming more common. In particular, drone delivery of medical supplies to, from, or across healthcare campuses have been ongoing, both in the United States and abroad.

Companies are also beginning to use drones for deliveries in rural areas. Companies such as Zipline have been delivering medical supplies in rural African communities, and others, such as Wing, have started to offer consumer goods deliveries in rural communities within the United States. These deliveries demonstrate the potential of drones, particularly aerial drones, to overcome a lack of infrastructure that might prohibit conventional delivery services from operating in the area.

Pilots & developments

December 2013 - Jeff Bezos reveals Amazon Prime Air on a news segment, announcing a long-term goal of delivering packages under five pounds in under 30 minutes.

April 2014 - The FAA and the North Dakota Department of Commerce open the first commercial drone test site in the United States, the Northern Plains UAS Test Site, located in Grand Forks, North Dakota.

August 2014 - Google reveals they have been working on drone delivery development under the program name Project Wing (later to become its own Alphabet subsidiary).

Mid-2016 - The United States Postal Service (USPS) conducts a large-scale survey of public perception of drones in the US, finding that the US has an “ambiguous reception” of drone deliveries. 34% of households surveyed disliked the idea of drone deliveries while 44% were in favor of drone deliveries.

July 2016 - The first large-scale drone delivery program in the world is launched as a partnership between San Francisco start-up Zipline and clinics and blood banks in Rwanda.

November 2016Starship Technologies, a robot delivery manufacturer,  makes its delivery robots  commercially available in the United States.

2017 - The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announces the Unmanned Aircraft System (UAS) Pilot Program.  Ten partnerships between technologies and State, local, and tribal governments were selected to take part in this program.

February 2018 - The Chinese company Ehang makes the first passenger-drone test flight in the world. The Ehang drone can carry one passenger (up to 100kg) on a 23-minute flight.

June 2018Nuro and Kroger join together to form the first partnership between an autonomous delivery company and a grocery store and pilot autonomous grocery delivery in Scottsdale, Arizona.

April 2019 - Alphabet’s subsidiary, Wing, becomes the first company approved by the FAA to complete deliveries via drone.

May 2019 - DHL launches an urban drone delivery program in China.

June 2019 Amazon’s CEO of Amazon Worldwide Consumer, announces that “within months” packages ordered through Amazon Prime will begin to be delivered by drone.

March 2020 - Drone start-up Zipline begins delivering medical supplies via drone in Charlotte, NC, claiming to be the first company to aid in the pandemic.

August 2020 - Amazon receives approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to operate as a drone airline.

September 2020  - Walmart announces they are piloting grocery delivery via drone in Fayetteville, North Carolina.

Resources

Policies, Pilots, and approaches

News Article
2018
Luke Dormehl
Digital Trends

This resource outlines the history of drones from 1907 through present day.

Communication tools

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