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Supply Chain News: Slowly but Steadily, Drone Deliveries in US Starting to Gain Some Momentum


As FAA Prepairs to Relax Rules, Drone Makers using Very Different Approaches to Technology

April 5, 2022

In November, SCDigest reported that commercial drone deliveries were slowly but surely starting to become a reality, nearly a decade after then Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos announced Amazon's vision of drone deliveries, complete with video of Amazon drones carrying on-line orders, on a “60 Minutes” show in December of 2013.

Supply Chain Digest Says...


Current FAA regulations still require a human to monitor each drone’s entire flight, either by keeping it in sight or more likely via a remote monitoring system.

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It certainly has taken a lot longer than most expected, the result largely from regulatory hurdles but also resistance from some neighborhoods relative to safety and noise.

A recent article in the Wall Street Journal (Christopher Mims) covered much of the same ground and companies in SCDigest’s piece, but with some good updates.

“The companies, using different technological approaches and business models, are collectively showing that the industry has worked out many - though far from all - of the kinks that delayed the advent of drone delivery before,” the Journal article notes.

San Francisco-based Zipline got its start using drones to deliver blood and other medical items in Rwanda and Ghana in Africa.

Now, it is in a pilot program with Walmart at a store Pest Ridge, Arkansas using drones to deliver order to any home within a 50-mile radius of the site, which has a platform to support drone takeoffs and landings.

The Zipline drones use a fixed wing design, 11-feet wide, that with a mechanized assist for takeoff can accelerates a drone to 60 miles per hour in just one second. Each delivery has a maximum weight of four pounds, with the parcel floating to the ground using a parachute.

Zipline also claims its drones make almost none of the noise that some people object to with helicopter style blades.

But Walmart has also been working for with another drone maker named Flytrex, using a store in North Carolina, from which it has delivered more than 18,000 items and can serve up to 10,000 homes, according the Journal story.

Flytrex also has a drone service in Granbury, Texas, near Fort Worth, delivering meals for Brinker International, owner of the Chili’s and Maggiano’s restaurant chains. The drones, which can carry six pounds, have reduced some delivery times by 50%, are significantly cheaper than ground-based food delivery services such as Door Dash, according to Brinker.

(See More Below)





Despite its critical role in starting the drone delivery era, Amazon has been low profile in its development, though it said in June 2020 that it had received FAA approval to conduct tests, though SCDigest is not aware of any commercial tests.

But the news web site Business Insider in March reported that Amazon plans to begin a commercial tests of its drone delivery service in September in California and Texas, delivering items up to five pounds.

Late to the recent drone dparty, Amazon aims to go big, planning to operate 145 drone launch stations and deliver 500 million packages by drone per year, said the documents obtained by Insider.

The company is testing a variety of different drone styles, all of which carry onboard systems for detecting and avoiding obstacles, an Amazon spokesman told the Journal.

Meanwhile, Wing – a unit of Google parent company Alphabet - has been delivering items including coffee, meals, cookies and more in Christiansburg, Virginia, since 2019.

The Journal reports that Wing has taken a fundamentally different approach to how drones should fly than Amazon. Made of carbon fiber and injection-molded foam, its drones weigh just 10 pounds, the lowest weight among the companies seeking FAA approval for delivery.

Interestingly, the Wing drones are designed to be fragile enough that a crash or collision would do little or no harm to anything they hit.

The Journal also reports that in Virginia Wing uses a dedicated hub area for deliveries.

But in the Dallas area, Wing will soon launch a service that delivers directly from a Walgreens pharmacy. Wing says the total drone system footprint should take up no more than a few spaces in a parking lot, from which it can support a half-dozen drones taking off and landing vertically.

Then just this week, FedEx Express, the world’s largest express transportation company, announced it is teaming up with California Bay Area-based Elroy Air, a company that says it is building the first end-to-end autonomous vertical take-off and landing (VTOL) cargo aircraft.


FedEx Express will test Elroy Air’s Chaparral autonomous air cargo system in its "middle-mile" logistics operations, transporting freight between sortation locations.

In these and a few other tests, the FAA gave limited permission for the drone deliveries, and for now, current FAA regulations still require a human to monitor each drone’s entire flight, either by keeping it in sight or more likely via a remote monitoring system.

With the success and safety record of these early commercial tests, recently the FAA has been faster to issue permissions for even larger programs.

The drone era is coming at last.

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