By 1970, commercial flights were about 20 years in the making and the general population was comfortable taking flight. The total number of flights that year was over 310 million worldwide. A fairly large number. Today, that number has increased to over 4.2 billion worldwide flights. And at any given time, there are more than 1.2 million people in the sky!
The trajectory of commercial flights is impressive. But what will the take-off path for drone flights look like? With about a decade in the making, how quickly will drones surpass the billion annual flights? How about a trillion?
Although drones are not necessarily a technology that I get super excited about. I do like to keep tabs on them and make sure I’m familiar with the developments. Especially considering so many large companies are promising big ideas.
Uber has had one of the more flashy drone divisions thus far, called Uber Elevate. Basically taking everything about Uber and bringing it to the skies.
In 2017, they kicked off a partnership with NASA to bring Air Taxis to cities by 2023.
More recently, they’ve previewed the new design for the Uber Eats delivery drone. With rotating wings, the drone reminds me a lot of the US military’s Osprey helicopter. Their new drones will start delivering food, 1-2 meals at a time, in San Diego in Summer 2020.
Among the many Alphabet projects is Wing – Google’s crack at commercial drones. They’ve partnered with FedEx and Walgreens to deliver health care products, food, and more to residents of Christiansburg, Virginia. Their first official delivery was made in October of 2019.
UPS Flight Forward
UPS became the first company to receive a full Part 135 Standard certification from the FAA for their UPS Flight Forward program. This means they can fly as many drones as they want, let their drones fly beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, carry cargo that weighs more than 55 pounds, and fly at night.
Thus far, their focus has been on medication delivery. Since March 2019, they’ve operated a drone delivery pilot at WakeMed Hospital in North Carolina. Just last week (November 2019), they completed the first drone medicine delivery to a residential patient.
Amazon Prime Air
Amazon is probably the most synonymous company with drone delivery. The idea of a drone dropping off an Amazon Prime package has been bubbling in people’s minds for a few years. They (like UPS) have fulfillment centers strategically placed which will help them launch fast when they finally do. However, their drone is still awaiting approval from the FAA.
But let’s look past the obvious opportunities – personal air travel and delivery services. What else should we be looking at?
There are plenty of other frequent developments in drones. Volocopter is among the front-runners in passenger drones. They recently created an autonomous crop-dusting drone with John Deere. Anduril has created a battering-ram drone called the Anvil, designed to target and take out other drones mid-flight.
So far, the highest impact area would have to be emergency and health-related applications. Using drones to assess the damage of Hurricane Harvey. Families in Mexico using drones to search for missing family members. Delivering medicine to remote areas in Africa.
One of the areas I’m particularly interested in is drones for security purposes. Amazon patented “Surveillance as a Service” for its delivery drones – speculating that people might want to hire the Amazon drones to look after their house while on vacation. While the residential application seems like a stretch, the commercial application would be more practical.
Nightingale Security, similarly, has created a fully autonomous drone security system that will patrol buildings, office complexes, factories, etc. This seems like a logical improvement to the common security guard. Especially for places with high-security needs, this addition of eyes in the sky would be great.
Similarly, aerial imaging is a very promising field for all kinds of reasons. Companies like Airobotics and Skycatch are great tools for assisting with urban planning, construction projects, realty, etc. Add in a computer vision tool like Picterra and drones can provide valuable information on the spread of infectious disease and nature conservation.
However, I think by far the greatest area of opportunity in this field is taking charge of Air Traffic Control for drones.
Drone Air Traffic Control
Currently, there are 213,000 registered aircraft in US. Already there are nearly 1.5 million registered drones in US (with only 400,000 of them for commercial purposes).
That’s a lot of potential moving parts to manage in the air and we haven’t even seen the real growth of the commercial applications. Imagine once UberEats, UPS, Google, and Amazon all get their programs underway. There could be upwards of 100 to 200 million drones in service.
- Who’s going to monitor the nearly limitless airfields in which these commercial drones inhabit?
- Who’s going to make it easy for municipalities to manage drone traffic?
- Who’s going to develop the digital maps for drone navigation?
The FAA might be managing the licensing of UAVs for recreational and commercial purposes. But there’s no one currently monitoring the actual flight of these things.
Honestly, I don’t believe that the FAA has the resources to build out the infrastructure for Drone Air Traffic Control. Google and Amazon are far more capable (both with capital and technology) at creating the proper air traffic control systems for drones.
Who am I kidding? Of course, Google is already underway on this project. The OpenSky app is a platform where hobbyists or commercial fliers in Australia can see where they can and cannot fly their drones. It’s a rudimentary version, but it’s the early beginnings of an air traffic control for drones. AirMap and Iris Automation are two other companies working on this development – who seem to be further along.
Will Air Traffic Control for Drones eventually fall under the FAA? Or are we witnessing a new power in aviation management?
As I prefaced in the beginning, I don’t get super excited about drones. However, I recognize that there’s a real opportunity to take cars off the road planes out of the sky in favor of these flying pieces of plastic. Who captures that opportunity, though, is still unknown.