The drones are coming to the supply chain.

Drones are poised to join other hi-tech tools in servicing the “last mile” and challenges in the warehouse.

Wal-Mart testing warehouse drone to catalog and manage inventory
Wal-Mart testing warehouse drone to catalog and manage inventory

Kids of all ages get them for Christmas and birthdays. Someone landed one on the White House lawn. The U.S. military uses them for assassination. Whether they are a toy, a political distraction or a conveyance of death, drones, or as they are technically described, “small unmanned aircraft systems”(sUAS), have caught the attention of millions of people. Finding the lair of terrorist leaders and unleashing armed drones is a safer alternative than sending in hundreds of ground troops and less expensive than launching US Air Force or Navy air strikes.
Today, despite all of this activity, business entities involved in sales and distribution of goods in small packages, including critical medical supplies and sample specimens, have been drawn - no pun intended - to drone technology. These enterprises are quickly being added to the list of drone enthusiasts. Companies such as these are attracted by the potential of a less expensive, faster delivery with safer alternatives. Properly applied, drone technology could dramatically change both the parcel business and the warehouse, eventually becoming a tool in servicing the supply chain.

The use of drones for commercial purposes has been a controversial topic. In fact, drones in any form have created controversy. Both advocates and opponents of transportation drones have zeroed in on problems including safety, control and airspace as these become the critical issues. For the transportation industry, the development of drones is no small matter. Drones will ultimately compete with established ground based transportation and as they eventually receive approval, sophistication and adequate size and capacities, they may dominate segments of LTL distribution. In addition, Wal Mart has already been testing drone operations within the warehouse. The initial results have been positive.

The first target for commercial drone use is small package delivery, now a ground based operation emanating from multiple warehouse locations, drones will be programmed to do the same, but from the air. Opponents see the drone potentially causing air space issues but as ground based deliveries continue, their issues of not only time, and traffic congestion, also become a concern. Proponents of the use of commercial drones to relieve this congestion know they can eventually improve upon certain levels of ground-based delivery. To do so, however, they must address technical, regulatory and capacity issues.

The challenges surrounding the use of drone technology for distribution hinges upon the development of routes for safe delivery of small packages. The allocation of airspace to complete the mission and compliment the actual physical capabilities of drones is a critical factor. Companies such as Amazon, Matternet and Google X are all studying the concept. All have offered viable concepts.

General merchandising giant has been a major proponent of unmanned aircraft delivery for a number of its products. For years Amazon has been involved in the development of its air delivery concept. Maintaining a number of large warehouses in major population centers in the U.S., Amazon’s concept of sales and delivery meld well with the drone concept. A large percentage of Amazon’s products shipped from these locations meet the general specifications (dimension and weight – less than 5 lbs), will today, qualify them for delivery to their customers via unmanned aircraft systems.

Amazon Prime air drone
Amazon Prime air drone

Matternet and Amazon are the first corporations to announce their intent to develop systems that will allow the launch of drones for commercial purposes. They have not only refined the development of the aircraft but have studied the issues of airspace and safe access. In two working papers published by its entity Amazon Prime Air, Amazon discusses some of the major issues facing the application of commercial drones and the manner in which to address them. Amazon has already tested an automatic parcel drone operation

These papers offer thought provoking concepts on the commercial drone concept. One of the papers describes Amazon’s position on the design, management and operation of airspace, which will include small unmanned aircraft systems. The second paper offers their concept on the determination of the steps to take for a safe unmanned aircraft system.

Menlo Park, California based start-up MatterNet has been developing a system of drone deliveries in remote areas in countries around the world. Since 2011, they have been operating in Switzerland, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. CEO Oliver Evans has indicated, “The technology is here.” He also has indicated that the system is cost and time efficient, saying that, “You don’t need drivers and they won’t get caught in traffic.”

Opponents see the application of drone technology for cargo delivery as science fiction, indicating that the technical issues will outweigh the apparent efficiencies of drone deliveries. Proponents such as Amazon’s Prime Air have indicated that “Highly-equipped sUAS will be capable of navigation, merging and sequencing, communication, maintaining safe self-separation and collision avoidance and de-confliction in congested airspace, without operator assistance.”

Understanding the need for some resolution of the issues, the U.S. Congress asked the Federal Aviation Administration to develop rules in 2012. These rules would legalize drones for commercial use and regulate commercial zones. FAA rules could be a double-edged sword, on one side they could give the fledgling industry something to work with. On the other side, stiff rules could eliminate any advantages.

The FAA missed their deadline but did publish a draft proposal in February 2015. Companies such as Amazon’s Prime Air and Google X were preparing to announce commercial operations by no later than June 2016 but were disappointed with the draft rules handed down. Drone proponents indicate that the FAA’s draft proposals would delay the inevitability of drone use. Others fear that FAA proposals will pose greater, insurmountable roadblocks.

On a somewhat positive note, the FAA proposed regulations indicating that firms could operate drones commercially at altitudes up to 500’ at speeds up to 100 miles per hour. Under the draft, operators must be at least 17 years old, be vetted by the Transportation Security Administration, must pass a written test and pay $200.00 to secure a license.

Among other things, FAA also proposed that operations only be allowed during the day, which could cause scheduling problems as the seasons vary. The FAA indicated that drones will not be allowed to follow a path over individuals who are not connected with the operation or the business they are involved in. Drone proponents indicate that it will take an act of congress to provide rules that they can live with.

Amazon’s Prime Air is initially planning to provide deliveries of packages up to 5lbs to destinations approximately 30 minutes or less from their distribution centers. Prime Air has proposed the creation of a system that clarifies the use of the airspace environment below 500 feet. Their plans include highly automated drones that will operate as below line of sight (BLOS) fleets, weighing less than 55 lbs each, and flying at a segregated elevation under 400 feet. There will be a proposed “No Fly Zone” between 400 and 500 feet. Two levels will be created below 400 feet that will include high speed transit between 200 to 400 feet and low speed localized transit below 200 feet. Amazon’s premise is that their proposal creates airspace access tied to vehicle capability and safer operations by buffering small unmanned aircraft systems (sAUS).

Amazon Prime Air’s position is that, “The safest and most efficient model for drones, (sUAS), with mixed equipage and capabilities, is in segregated airspace with a defined structure of operations below 500 feet.” In their paper “Determining Safe Access with a Best-Equipped, Best-Served Model for Small Unmanned Aircraft Systems”, they outline the class, examples of equipment and recommended airspace access for each. The company is exploring various technologies such as vehicle-to-vehicle communications, command and control networks and sense and avoid. These capabilities will be online with the ability to adapt in real time for changes in weather and emergency access.

Matternet’s goal is to be capable of sending drones into sparsely populated areas and to create services that will be autonomous, safe, and speedy. They have been working with the Swiss postal service, Swiss Post. They tested drone delivery systems as proof of concept, to clarify the legal framework, consider local conditions and explore the technical and business capabilities of drones. They had previously tested their drones in Haiti, delivering medicines and supplies to inaccessible locations.

When the industry launches more sophisticated drones, (sUAS), their use in transportation and distribution will become an increasingly intriguing topic. As drone technology develops, however, attacks upon civilian targets, commercial air space, and government installations, even the White House again, may increase. Drone enthusiasts, good and bad, will continue to test the system.

Realizing this, however, a recent demonstration of a unique, rather unsophisticated tool to thwart these incursions was unveiled. Birds of prey, primarily Bald Eagles, are being trained to intercept attacking drones in mid-air and bring them down proving in a sense that nature still conquers all. Perhaps these unsophisticated, feathered defenders could also be trained to deliver packages.