How Close Are We To Seeing Hordes of Drones Flying Above Our Houses?

Date: May 8, 2020

Words: 2,500

Read Time: 6-8 Minutes

From 2000 to 2020, How Much Closer to Commercialization?

In 2006, around the same time that Shakira’s single “Hips Don’t Lie” was working its way up the Billboard charts, the first inklings of civilian drone usage were beginning to work their way into American society.

However, the media attention given to drones at the time was far less than that given to Shakira. In fact, despite some coverage of military usage and domestic legal activity, drone activity was relatively vacant from people’s radar. With limited practicality and application, there were rarely any major updates to report on, and none of the technology or data surrounding its use was breaking into the mainstream.

Early Drone Coverage Centers On Military Use

That all began to began to change a few years later.

By the time that Jeff Bezos made an infamous claim about the deployment of a drone fleet for Amazon’s marketplace fulfillment in 2013, a large number of brands and retail outlets (including Best Buy and Walmart) had started selling them. In 2015, one could easily purchase a high-speed drone with on-camera attachments for a little over $400 from almost any major retail store. Fast forward to today, and the options range from small $50 toys to industry-grade, $2,000+ surveillance models that can capture videos and images from miles above earth.

Drone Racing Gains Momentum

But while widespread popularity of civilian drones has been quick to catch on since the availability of consumer-ready models increased circa 2010-2011, the early momentum within the commercial sector has since been stifled, especially for use by major tech and logistics providers.

This is due to a myriad of reasons. However, the core obstacles in the way of these corporate programs almost always relate back to government regulation and safety concerns.

Commercial Drone Programs Come Under Intense Government Scrutiny

Although growing numbers of U.S. citizens purchasing drones had undeniably created government concern, heightened interest in drone programs from major corporates like Amazon, Google, and UPS set off alarm bells within the ranks of the U.S. government in 2012-2015.

Of course, the government had known this was coming – the legislation surrounding drone usage had been introduced first in 2004 and then ultimately was approved by the House and Senate in 2006. However, the large can of worms that spilled over as a result of this legislation, such as having corporations deploy massive fleets of drone to perform tasks related to package delivery or distribution, went largely untouched.

North Carolina’s Government Makes Progress With Drones

In the realm of distribution and delivery (like Amazon Fulfillment or UPS), drones have been receiving interest for some time. Particularly when it comes to fast and effective order fulfillment. Within urban communities, test simulations indicated that a drone could leave a warehouse with a package and arrive at a local customer’s house within 10-15 minutes of an order being placed. Because aerial transport eliminates obstacles like red lights or pedestrians, pilots could control unmanned drones to fly as fast as 70-80 mph with packages underneath.

But as organizations sought to gain approval for these drone programs on a country-wide scale, things got complicated.

Inside the UPS Drone Delivery Program

Video by NBC Youtube

Corporate Drone Programs Become a Problem Through Sheer Scale

After Amazon’s 2013 drone announcement and subsequent video promotion, commercial R&D in drone technology grew exponentially. And although tests were being run across numerous industries, the promise held by drones with logistics, fulfillment, and shipping industries was particularly significant. But as evaluations progressed, the complications arising from use on such a massive scale quickly came to the forefront.

UPS worker tightening a package onto a delivery drone as a sample test launch.
Image by UPS shows a sample drone launch pad as a worker locks a package in place.

For a company like Amazon or UPS to create drone programs for widespread domestic use, their respective programs would likely need to contain at least 75,000-100,000 drones. Per company. That makes for roughly 500,000-600,000 delivery drones across just the 5-6 largest providers. Factor in uses across other industries for farmland maintenance, window cleaning, security, etc., and there’s likely another 100,000-200,000 corporate drones entering our skies.

Combine those 800,000 commercial drones with current figures that show nearly 2.3 million drones in use by civilians, and you have over 3 million drones actively flying within the borders of the U.S.

These are numbers that the U.S. government now sees a strong need to control.

The Government’s Response: How to Handle a Country That Flies

When the U.S. began designating drone applications for public and commercial use, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued an average of just 2 corporate drone licenses per year. That was all the interest they got. For personal usage, 2006-2009 saw just 100,000 permit applications submitted, and 93,000 approved.   

However, after Bezos made his bold predictions about the deployment of a drone program to boost the delivery efficiency of his e-commerce empire, the climate completely shifted. Bezos’ remarks set off a firestorm of debate about ideas, theories, and projections regarding the drone industry’s growth. Subsequently, the number of new applications submitted to the FAA for commercial use rose to nearly 1,000 in 2014.

Amazon Delivery Drone Demonstration

Video by Capaneo on Youtube

But here’s where it gets tricky.

While the U.S. government is fine with approving drone programs for pesticide treatment at farms or for photography at state parks, their abundant use directly overhead of cities, schools, playgrounds, and parks is where the approvals end. As Amazon and Google were quick to find, deploying thousands of drones, carrying packages of all sizes and weights, to fly yards or even feet above on roadways and sidewalks is a major risk to public safety.

A Quick Explanation of Existing Drone Laws

In 2016, the Federal Flight Administration (FAA) introduced a string of new guidelines related to public and commercial drone use within the U.S. As part of this legislation, the FAA’s 44807 ruling on exemptions for commercial drone usage, as well as Part 135 on piloting restrictions and Part 107 on the prohibition of air carrier programs via drone, has strictly limited how corporates can deploy drone programs.

This has been particularly damaging for the drone-related R&D efforts of shipping and logistics companies like UPS, Amazon, and FedEx.

Because of this legislation, not a single major delivery provider has introduced a delivery drone program for widespread use.

However, that may be all about to change.

UPS’s Major Breakthrough with Their Drone Program

Although the initial outlook for drones as delivery vehicles was grim, progress has been renewed in recent times. Over the past four years, persistent development by major providers like UPS has accomplished a number of breakthroughs, including the use of drones that fly outside the line of site of the driver. At the moment, these drones are flying medical supplies and equipment from pharmacies like CVS to local citizens. But, their usage is set to increase over the coming years.

New UPS 2020 Drone Prototype

For UPS, the achievement of becoming the first parcel carrier to hold the coveted FAA “Part 135” certification is a major milestone. The certification effectively authenticates UPS’s subsidiary Flight Forward Inc’s development of a drone carrier program for parcel deliveries. UPS will initially expand its drone delivery service to further support hospital campuses around the country, and to provide solutions for customers beyond those in the healthcare industry.

Moving forward, UPS Flight Forward plans to transport a variety of items for customers in many industries, and regularly fly drones beyond the operators’ visual line of sight. In the not-so-distant future, drone-centric delivery programs could become the driving force behind “mainstream” same-day delivery, and UPS’s progress in the market is evidence that change is happening fast.

And while UPS makes progress and is probably considered to be the most “advanced” corporate program in development, progress by Google, Amazon, and FedEx with their own programs continues to occur as well.

How Far Away From Drone Traffic Are We Actually?

Although it was Amazon who first stirred up visions of a drone-laden distribution future with their innovative video short-clip in 2014, the development of said program is yet to prominently evolve. Instead, most major companies remain beleaguered by the level of paperwork and legal parameters that must be navigated.

However, several prominent programs like that of UPS are making substantial progress and finally getting to deployment stages. If other companies are able to follow suit, we could see thousands of drones (followed by tens or hundreds of thousands in the next decade) begin operating above us in cities and farms across the nation.

Looking Ahead: How Drones Could Transform Logistics & Transportation

While you can decide for yourself whether the continued development of public and commercial drone operations is good or bad for American society, there’s no denying that progress is being made. And as investment continues, we will likely see drones more and more frequently in our day-to-day lives.