A delivery drone is an unmanned aerial vehicle (UAV) used to transport packages, medical supplies, food, or other goods. Delivery drones are typically autonomous. In November, 2020 the FAA proposed airworthiness criteria for type certification of delivery drones with an intent to initialize commercial operations. Zipline, Wingcopter, and Amazon Prime Air are amongst the 10 companies selected for this type certification.
Drones can be used to transport medicinal products such as blood products, vaccines, and other supplies such as pharmaceuticals and medical samples. Medical deliveries have become one of the leading applications for drone delivery because they can more easily fly into and out of remote or otherwise inaccessible regions,maybe compared to trucks or motorcycles. Medical drone delivery is credited with saving lives during emergency deliveries of blood in Rwanda and post-hurricane relief in Puerto Rico. During the COVID-19 pandemic, drones began making medical deliveries of personal protective equipment and COVID-19 tests in the United States.
Commercial operations of medical drone delivery have been underway since 2016, when Zipline became the first sustained commercial drone operation. Zipline has made more than 70,000 medical deliveries by drone as of October 2020.
Drones have been proposed as a solution for rapidly delivering prepared foods, such as pizzas, tacos, and frozen beverages.
Early prototypes of food delivery drones include the Tacocopter demonstration by Star Simpson, which was a taco delivery concept utilizing a smartphone app to order drone-delivered tacos in San Francisco area. The revelation that it didn't exist as a delivery system or app led to it being labelled a hoax.A similar concept named the "burrito bomber" was tested in 2012.
Different postal companies from Australia, Switzerland, Germany, Singapore, the United Kingdom and Ukraine have undertaken various drone trials as they test the feasibility and profitability of unmanned delivery drone services. The USPS has been testing delivery systems with HorseFly Drones.
In February 2014, the prime minister and cabinet affairs minister of the United Arab Emirates (UAE) announced that the UAE planned to launch a fleet of UAVs for civilian purposes. Plans were for the UAVs to use fingerprint and eye-recognition systems to deliver official documents such as passports, ID cards and licenses, and supply emergency services at accidents. A battery-powered prototype four-rotor UAV about half a meter across was displayed in Dubai.
In the United States, initial attempts at commercial use of UAVs were blocked by FAA regulation, but were later allowed. In June 2014, the FAA published a document that listed activities not permitted under its regulations, including commercial use, which the organization stated included "delivering packages to people for a fee" or offered as part of a "purchase or another offer." The agency issued waivers to many organizations for less restrictive commercial uses, but each had to apply individually. In August 2016, the FAA adopted Part 107 rules that allowed limited commercial use by right. Drone operation under these rules is restricted to line-of-sight of the pilot and is not allowed over people, implying many applications like delivery to populated areas still requires a waiver. They also require the UAVs weigh less than 55 lb (25 kg), fly up to a maximum of 400 feet (120 m), at a speed of no greater than 100 miles per hour (160 km/h), only be operated during daytime, and that drone operators must also qualify for flying certificates and be at least 16 years old. In 2019, the FAA began certifying drone delivery companies under conventional charter airline Part 135 rules, with some accommodations for drones (such as that the pilot manual did not need to be carried on board). In preparation for higher volumes of drone traffic, the FAA finalized the Remote ID regulation in December 2020, giving manufacturers 18 months and operators 30 months to comply with the requirement for self-identification transmissions outside of designated areas. At the same time, the FAA added a Operations Over People and at Night rule to Part 107. Nighttime operations require anti-collision lights and additional pilot training. For flight over people or moving vehicles, drones are put into four categories depending on capability of injury to people, with the least restricted category having a full Part 21 airworthiness certificate.
The concept of drone delivery entered the mainstream with Amazon Prime Air – Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos' December 2013 announcement that Amazon was planning rapid delivery of lightweight commercial products using UAVs. Amazon's press release was met with skepticism, with perceived hurdles including federal and state regulatory approval, public safety, reliability, individual privacy, operator training and certification, security (hacking), payload thievery, and logistical challenges.
In December 2013, in a research project of Deutsche Post AG subsidiary DHL, a sub-kilogram quantity of medicine was delivered via a prototype Microdrones "Parcelcopter", raising speculation that disaster relief may be the first industry the company will use the technology.
In July 2014 it was revealed Amazon was working on its 8th and 9th drone prototypes where each could fly 50 mph (80 km/h) and carry a 5 lb (2.3 kg) package, and had applied to the FAA to test them.
In August 2014, Google revealed it had been testing UAVs in Australia for two years. The Google X program known as "Project Wing" announced an aim to produce drones that can deliver products sold via e-commerce.
In February 2015, Hangzhou-based e-commerce provider Ali Baba started delivery drone service in a partnership with Shanghai YTO Express in which it delivered tea to 450 customers around select cities in China.
In 2015, an Israeli startup Flytrex partnered with AHA, Iceland's largest eCommerce website, and together they initiated a drone delivery route which demonstrated reducing delivery time from 30 minutes, to less than 5 minutes.
In March 2016, Flirtey conducted the first fully autonomous FAA approved drone delivery in an urban setting in the U.S.
In April 2016, a joint project in Japan involving the central government, Chiba City, research institutions and companies including Rakuten was launched to trial home drone deliveries in an urban area. A similar test project was carried out in Naka, Tokushima in February 2016 as a way to facilitate shopping for people who live in a depopulated area.
A partnership between 7-Eleven and Flirtey resulted in the first FAA-approved delivery to a residence in the United States in July 2016, delivering a frozen Slurpee. The following month, the company partnered with Domino's in New Zealand to launch the first commercial drone delivery service.
In China, JD.com has been developing drone delivery capabilities. As of June 2017, JD.com had seven different types of delivery drones in testing across four provinces in China (Beijing, Sichuan, Shaanxi and Jiangsu). The drones are capable of delivering packages weighing between 5 and 30 kg (11 to 66 lbs) while flying up to 100 km/hr (62 mph). The drones fly along fixed routes from warehouses to special landing pads where one of JD.com's 300,000 local contractors then delivers the packages to the customers’ doorsteps in the rural villages. The e-commerce giant is also working on a 1 metric ton (1,000 kg) delivery drone which will be tested in Shaanxi.
In January 2018, Boeing unveiled a prototype of a cargo drone for up to 500 lb (227 kg) payloads, an electric flying testbed that completed flight tests at the Boeing Research & Technology research center in Missouri.
In 2016, Zipline began their partnership with the government of Rwanda to construct and operate a medical distribution center in Muhanga. Rwanda has a mountainous geography, poor road conditions, and a long rainy season, making an aerial delivery system more cost efficient and timely than traditional road-based deliveries. As of May 2018, they had delivered over 7,000 units of blood using drones. By October 2020, Zipline had made over 70,000 medical deliveries by drone and expanded operations across Rwanda and Ghana.
Their drones are small fixed-wing electric airplanes, enabling them to fly fast and over long distances (up to 180 km round-trip on a single charge), in all weather seen in Rwanda. Zipline drones use an assisted take-off to enter flight, and for landing they use an arresting gear-inspired mechatronic recovery system.
The company company wing incubated by Google X began commercial deliveries in Christiansburg, Virginia in October, 2019. It carries parcels up to three pounds, using a tether for the final drop. As of April 2020, shippers were limited to FedEx, Walgreens, Sugar Magnolia, Mockingbird Café, and Brugh Coffee. Wing had obtained an FAA Part 135 air carrier certificate in April, 2019, which allowed it to charge to carry third-party cargo, and to operate out of the line of sight of the pilot. It also delivered over a thousand meals to Virginia Tech students and employees in a fall 2016 test program.
As of May, 2020, UPS has made over paid 3,700 drone deliveries under Part 107 rules to WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina. In May 2020, UPS began taking prescriptions via Matternet M2 drone under part 107 rules about half a mile from a CVS to a central location in The Villages, Florida, from which a UPS employee makes the home delivery by golf cart.
In 2020, UPS also began drone deliveries between the central Wake Forest Baptist Medical Center campus in Winston-Salem and the health system's other locations. Another delivery service began for UC San Diego Health.
In June 2019, UPS Flight Forward obtained a Part 135 Air Carrier certificate from the FAA, allowing longer-distance and nighttime flights.
Swoop’s drones can complete round trips of around 260 km (162 miles) and can carry a maximum weight of 18 kg, which works out as 10 test kits or up to 50 vials of blood. The drones have a wingspan of 2.4m (nearly 8 feet) and are required to fly below 122m (about 400 feet) to ensure they don’t collide with manned aircraft.
Drug cartels have used UAVs to transport contraband, sometimes using GPS-guided UAVs.
From 2013 and 2015, UAVs were observed delivering items into prisons on at least four occasions in the United States while four separate but similar incidents occurred in Ireland, Britain, Australia and Canada as well. Though not a popular way of smuggling items into prisons, corrections officials state that some individuals are beginning to experiment with UAVs.
In June 2014, a quadcopter crashed into an exercise yard of Wheatfield Prison, Dublin. The quadcopter collided with wires designed to prevent helicopters landing to aid escapes, causing it to crash. A package containing drugs hung from the quadcopter and was seized by prisoners before prison staff could get to it.
Between 2014 and 2015, at two prisons in South Carolina, items such as drugs and cell phones were flown into the area by UAVs with authorities and one prison not knowing how many deliveries were successful before gaining the attention of authorities.
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A delivery drone's design configuration is typically defined by the use-case of what is being delivered, and where it must be delivered to.
A common configuration is a multirotor - such as a quadcopter or octocopter - which is a drone with horizontally-aligned propellers. Another common configuration is a fixed-wing design. A multirotor design provides power to lift the drone and payload, redundancy to powertrain failure, and an ability to hover and descend vertically (VTOL). However, a multirotor configuration is less efficient and produces more noise. A fixed-wing configuration provides an order of magnitude increase in range, flight at higher airspeeds, and produces less noise, but requires more space for take-off, delivery, and landing.
There are also hybrid approaches (for example Wingcopter or Swoop Aero) that use multiple horizontal rotors for take-off and landing, and vertical rotors paired with a fixed-wing for forward flight.
There are many sensors in the drone which are necessary for it to fly autonomously. Inertial sensors such as an accelerometer help the drone remain in flight by providing data to allow the autopilot to adjust motor speeds (multirotor configuration) or control surface deflections (fixed-wing configuration) to steer the drone. Navigation sensors such as a GPS or magnetic sensors aid the drone to fly along a specific path or to a specific waypoint by measuring the drone's location and orientation with respect to the earth. Air flow sensors allow the drone to measure the air speed, temperature, and density, and that information maintain safe control of the aircraft. The drone may also use these sensors to estimate the wind speed and direction to assist with package delivery and/or landing manoeuvres.
Delivery drones need powerful motors to keep both the drone and payload aloft. Brushless DC motors are most typically used in drones because they have become cheap, lightweight, powerful, and small. The propeller blades of the drone turn at very high speeds, so the optimal material used for these rotor blades maximizes the strength to weight ratio. Some are made from carbon-fiber reinforced composites while others are made of thermoplastics because they are cheaper so the cost of replacement when the drone crashes is smaller. Lithium ion batteries are used in most drones because they offer enough energy and power, and they are relatively light so they do not weigh down the drone too much.
Ground Control System
Delivery drones rely on ground control systems both for safe operations and for their commercial operations. For safe operations, the drone operator needs to manage their fleet of aircraft and how they integrate into the broader airspace. For commercial use cases, the ground systems allow for receiving and tracking orders.
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