2016 was a great year for drones. We saw their successful use in many areas of our society: police, fire, rescue, news, weather, and inspections to name just a few. In the area of “inspections” it seemed like every industry put drones to use. They were so successful in some inspections that I believe they will become a staple for inspecting infrastructure for many years to come, i.e. bridges, towers, damns, pipe lines, power lines, etc.
Some companies were hoping for even more drone success in 2016 in the area of deliveries. They envision some huge gains in reduced delivery times and reduced cost. There were a few successful test programs from the big boys such as UPS, DHL, and Amazon, along with a few successful fringe delivers of burritos, slurpees and the like. However, there are several large obstacles to overcome. The largest are a couple FAA regulations. Currently drone pilots must keep their drones within line of sight. They must be able to have eye contact with it. This significantly limits the range and capabilities of drone deliveries. Additionally, there is an FAA regulation that prohibits drones from flying over people. The FAA talks about changes to this particular regulations and has even granted a few exemptions to companies for particular applications. The other big hurdle I see is also in the area of safety. How do you practically deliver a product to a home or business without endangering the:
- people and property below – Where can you drop a packet without the risk of hitting someone or something below? Not all back yards, front yards or driveways could avoid these hazards.
- the product itself – Product packaging currently has to withstand rough treatment. However, dropping something from a significant height requires even more thoughtful packaging.
- the drone – Low level deliveries put the drone at risk. Curious pets, children, and even adults will likely result in drone damage and/or crashes.
Despite these challenges I could see a break through in drone deliveries in 2017. Great minds are working on it, as evidenced by several successful patents from Amazon (drone nesting, floating warehouse). We’ll continue to see advancements in the both the technical and practical challenges. Industry will also continue to work with (and/or pressure) regulators on the other challenges that remain. The gains are too great. They will be pursued. We have another exciting year of the drone ahead of us!