Google's parent company Alphabet has officially become the first drone operator to get government approval to operate as an airline, which will, in turn, allow the company to start using drones to deliver packages to customers.
Wing Aviation LLC, a subsidiary of Alphabet Inc., the parent company of Google, can now essentially function like a small airline, in accordance with approval from the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) and the Department of Transportation. The company is raring to go, with plans to begin testing deliveries in rural communities in Virginia over the next few months. The drone is a helicopter/plane hybrid that can lift off vertically, then fly horizontally carrying packages and lowering them into recipients' yards while hovering at a safe distance overhead, explains Bloomberg.
James Ryan Burgess, CEO of Wing Aviation, calls the decision an "exciting moment" for the company, and "pivotal" for both Wing and the drone industry on the whole. Virginia Tech Mid-Atlantic Aviation Partnership has been working with Wing in testing the deliveries in the area, and Mark Blanks, Director, also notes that customer reception has been positive.
Concerns Over Drone Deliveries
But naturally, the news is met with some concerns, and at the top of that list is safety. Will drones be flying all over residential areas everywhere, in public places, forcing passers-by to duck for cover whenever they see one for fear it might malfunction, crash, and injure them?Drones still cannot fly in crowded areas. For now, Wing can only charge customers for drone deliveries in Virginia and must apply for permission to expand beyond there. What's more, in order to receive this approval, Wing had to abide by the same rules and requirements as other air carriers, creating detailed manuals, training routines, and a safety hierarchy. And Wing claims that there's actually a lower risk to pedestrians from drone deliveries than there is from the same deliveries made by car. For what it's worth, Craig Meadows, Montgomery County Administrator in Virginia, says his community is "very excited to be the birthplace of drone delivery in the U.S."
Second is privacy. The drones are permitted to use video to help them navigate. But how will customers feel about having their homes filmed as packages are being delivered? Wing says the images are not archived and would only ever be used for technical analysis. I guess if we let Google Maps cars and planes drive and fly around our neighbourhoods, snapping aerial and 360-shots of our homes, why not drones owned by the same company?
Third is jobs and personal interaction. The fear, as with any tech development, is that drones will take the jobs of delivery persons. That may very well be true. But they will also open up an entirely new category of employment for drone delivery ground operators, drone delivery specialists, or whatever else a job might be called and entail. Every five drones, for example, must be operated by a pilot on the ground. And, of course, the drones will only be able to deliver certain items: heavier items, large items, or those containing hazardous materials will still need to be delivered by a human being. As with many other cases that involve a tech or robotic takeover, it's not replacing jobs, per se, but replacing one skill set with another that will become more valuable. As someone who works from home and receives tons of package deliveries, I see all types of delivery persons. Some can totally make your day, taking the time to converse and learn about you. Others can ruin your day with their surly attitudes. But for the most part, they're like ninjas in the night (or day), dropping packages at your doorstep, knocking or ringing the bell, and peeling off in their trucks before you even make it to the door because they need to make all of their deliveries before the shift is over.
Drone Deliveries Are Coming, Whether You Like It Or Not
While Google is now the first, its approval is likely to spark others to move forward with similar services, or at least make the approval process easier or more worth their while to pursue.
Likely to be the next will be Amazon's Prime Air, which is still in its conceptual format, and uses multirotor miniature unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) to deliver Amazon packages within a half hour of a customer placing the order. Orders can't be over 5 lbs., however, and must be small enough to fit into the cargo box. Flights are currently only within a 10-mile radius of an Amazon order fulfillment centre. Amazon delivered its first package successfully via Prime Air in England back in 2016 and built a fulfillment centre in Cambridge there. It has also been testing deliveries using its current model UAVs at a site in Canada, close to the U.S. border, and in other countries.
Amazon Prime Air has been testing flights using mini UAVs within a 10-mile radius of its fulfillment centres.
Meanwhile in Canada, Vaughan, ON-based Drone Delivery Canada (DDC) announced a partnership with Staples back in 2016 to explore the potential of developing a drone delivery logistics platform for the retailer's commercial requirements throughout Canada. DDC has received a Special Flight Operating Certificate (SFOC) from Transport Canada to test fly, and has been testing within Southern Ontario. In February, the company revealed The Condor, its largest cargo and farthest range delivery drone that has a payload capacity of 400 lbs. and a potential travel distance of up to 200 km. Measuring 22 feet long, 5.1 feet wide, and seven feet tall with a wing span of about 20 feet, it can take off and land vertically, and uses DDC's proprietary FLYTE management system. Working with Transport Canada, DDC hopes to secure the necessary approvals to start flight testing The Condor by the third quarter of this year. Additionally, earlier this month, the company announced that it would be pursuing opportunities in the healthcare, pharmaceuticals, oil and gas, mining, agriculture, forestry, construction, and courier company verticals. "Our proven system," says Michael Zahra, Vice President of Operations & Strategy at DDC, "is seen as a commercially viable delivery infrastructure solution to companies looking to reduce costs and dramatically improve logistics."
Tony Di Benedetto, CEO of Drone Delivery Canada, opens the cargo bay door of his company's newest, largest and farthest range cargo delivery drone, the Condor, in Toronto, ON in mid-February of this year.
Beyond the facts, do we really want our packages delivered by drone? If it can be done reliably, safely, and securely, why not? It could help reduce congestion on the roads, eliminating swarms of delivery trucks. It can inspire exciting new job categories, allow for faster and more convenient deliveries, and potentially increase retail sales: are customers more likely to buy if they know they can get their items almost immediately? Probably. This could potentially change the grocery game, harkening back to the days when bottles of milk were delivered to your doorstep every morning. Out of flour or eggs? No problem. A drone will be on its way before your oven is done preheating.
Advantages aside, I can't help but think of the potential horrors of the robot takeover. If you haven't seen the episode of The X-Files entitled "Rm9sbG93ZXJz" where everything from autonomous cars to a smart home automation system, robot vacuums and a robot waiter turn on Mulder and Scully, or any episode of Black Mirror, for that matter, it's worth a watch. Might these delivery drones be used for nefarious purposes, sent by hackers or thieves to appear as delivery drones when they're really scoping out a house to see if anyone is home, catch a glimpse of you entering your door passcode, or peeping Tom into your bedrooms or kids' rooms? It's a scary thought. And one that I'm not willing to entertain just yet. But it is the future. We had similar concerns when the big black box called the television entered our homes, when we were asked to log tons of personal data into mobile phones and PDAs, when security cameras could watch us in the home, and when smart home speakers began listening in. This is simply a next step. Is it the right one? And will it stick? It likely is and will. There's a vast air space ripe for use, so someone was bound to take it sooner or later.