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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. Of these, package delivery and logistical drones have the most significant effect on urban design and form. Drones can be terrestrial, aerial, or even aquatic in nature, though terrestrial and aerial drones are the most common types to date. 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. Terrestrial drones, meanwhile, can more easily carry heavier payloads and often take up less space, usually at the cost of a lower operating speeds and a shorter operational range.
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.
Levels of autonomy
Drones come in three general levels of autonomy: remote-controlled, semi-autonomous, and fully autonomous. Remote-controlled drones are the most common and oldest drone type, ranging from remote-controlled toys to aerial photography and videography drones. 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. The final level of autonomy, full autonomy, arguably doesn’t yet exist or is in its infancy, much like the current state of AVs. However, once in operation, these drones would be able to function completely without ongoing human input.
Drones can provide greater ease of access than conventional delivery and freight vehicles, and could potentially provide greater ease of access than conventional transportation vehicles as well if air taxis appear. 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. Similar principles could be applied to air taxi drones should they be developed. Additionally, aerial drones in particular can be used to quickly deliver packages and freight to both time-sensitive locations, such 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 can 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 can 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.
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 does increasingly complex interactions with traffic 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 requires 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.
Technology and e-commerce companies such as Google 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. Conversely, Postmates 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.
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