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Federal regulators have paved the way for Google offshoot Wing Aviation to begin drone delivery in the U.S., a small but significant step in advancing what could be the future of home delivery.
The issue has been divisive: When the Federal Aviation Administration certified Wing as the first domestic drone delivery company last month, privacy and anti-noise advocates grumbled while environmentalists, the drone industry, and fans of 6-minute burritos cheered.
Wing — which, along with Google, is owned by Alphabet — won approval after an 18-month trial delivering Mexican food and drug store parcels to a few rural spots in Australia. Wing said it conducted 70,000 flights and delivered 3,000 packages. It also drew the ire of residents who formed a community group to fight drone deliveries.
Most everybody else probably shrugged. Appropriately so, since only a sliver of the U.S. population will see a pizza being lowered from the sky any time soon.
While the FAA’s approval didn’t open the flood gates for drone delivery, it marks the start of a notable real-time test that will be watched closely by industry leaders eager to make drones more mainstream. The test is limited to two towns in hilly western Virginia, Blacksburg and Christianburg, home to about 65,000 residents over 34 square miles in the New River Valley.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Elaine Chao suggested in a press statement that the approval is part of a process, not the final word, and that the FAA will monitor closely. She called it “an important step forward for the safe testing and integration of drones into our economy’’ and emphasized safety as a top priority as technology evolves.
Further delineating the experiment are a set of regulatory and technical limitations: The drones have only a 6-mile flight radius due to battery life, fly at no higher than 400 feet (below helicopters and airplanes), and will operate only during daylight when weather permits.
What the drones do as they fly over rivers, housing tracts and malls will be closely watched by regulators as well as companies and investors. How the drones perform as the Wing project unfolds will shape the future of the industry, experts including Dan Gettinger co-director of the Center for the Study of the Drone at Bard College, said in interviews.
“It’ll be an experiment,” Gettinger said. “The FAA is looking for data from people, and are viewing this as an opportunity as well.”
Did the whirring robots disturb the peace in the valley? Did the cameras unnerve residents? Were children, pets or grandmothers clipped? Was the coffee delivered hot, not spilled and on time? Data, anecdotes and complaints will be collected to determine what does and doesn’t work as the regulatory framework is built out, and the technology is refined.
“They have the opportunity to drive what the industry looks like,” said Ryan Wallace, assistant professor of aeronautical science at Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Florida.
“There will be public challenges, and Google is feeling confident they can take the challenges head on,’’ he said. “The FAA is going to be watching very carefully to make sure it’s safe.’’
Numerous issues must be sorted out before the industry can take off, and the data from Virginia flights will help, Joe Praveen Vijayakumar, senior industry analyst at Frost & Sullivan wrote in an email. Safety, technology, public perception, security and regulatory matters must be addressed, added Vijayakumar, who is based in Chennai, India.
Tech issues to be ironed out include range of drones, battery life and resistance to bad weather; regulatory matters include air traffic management; and security issues will include the potential use of drones for smuggling, snooping, terrorism.
And let’s not forget noise. Read the comments sections in recent articles about the FAA approval, and see threats to shoot drones out of the sky, screeds about how they will harm quality of life, as well as concerns about terrorism and snooping.
“Safety is a key concern with scenarios such as mid-air mishaps, payload detachments and accidents during delivery (drones crashing into pedestrians, vehicles and pets) which need to be addressed as well,” Vijayakumar wrote.
Despite the narrow scope of the FAA approval, it still gives the U.S. industry a much-needed boost, analysts said. Environmentalists see drones as contributing to a greener planet by replacing truck and car deliveries, which to many can’t happen fast enough.
“This could definitely be a pivotal moment, which ushers in the era of drone deliveries on broader scale,” Vijayakumar wrote. “We could definitely see more countries granting permissions for drone deliveries in the immediate future.”
Frost & Sullivan foresees at least 2.25 million delivery drones in use by 2025, led by growth in Asia, for a compounded annual growth rate of 87.5% from 2018.
The FAA moves back into a leadership position with respect to drones, which it may have lost as countries including Finland, Iceland and Australia permitted drone deliveries on a wider scale, said Cathy Morrow Roberson, head analyst and founder of Atlanta-based Logistics Trends & Insights.
“Because of the silence from our government for so long, U.S. companies have taken tests elsewhere, and this could lead to more tests in the U.S.,” she said. “It’s very limited, but you’ve got to start somewhere. The door has widened, from a teeny crack to a bigger crack.”
Ron Day is an award-winning financial journalist who has covered companies and markets for nearly 20 years at Bloomberg News. He has also covered business news at daily newspapers in New Jersey and a weekly in Oak Park, Illinois.