Moving from Hype to Here: Commercial Delivery Drones Will Drive a Hive of Logistics Disruption by Aaron Allsbrook

January 28, 2020

When the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration publishes serious regulations associated with scaling up drone delivery systems, it’s time to pay serious attention to drones as a truly emerging industry in 2020.

Drones have been around for over a decade, and when Amazon announced they were experimenting with drones for package delivery, reactions ranged from laughter to skepticism, but as use cases matured (for example using drones to more quickly deliver life-saving human organs for transplants within metro areas) and investment surged, we’re finally reaching the threshold of adoption.

This year, after studying projects and systems being rolled out in other countries, in the U.S. I predict we will see regulated operations that will build confidence – particularly when drones are fully secure and reliable.

As of this month, in the U.S. all airplanes and helicopters are required to broadcast their positions by radio using automatic dependent surveillance-broadcast out (ADS-B Out) equipment on board in controlled airspace.

Why does this matter for drone delivery operators? This signaling will make “air traffic control” much easier for properly equipped drones to determine whether an aircraft is too close.

DJI, a leading drone maker, announced they are equipping every drone it sells weighing over 9 ounces with the ability to receive ADS-B signals; the company calls this feature “AirSense” but the solution is unidirectional (unable to send signals back to the proximal aircraft).

While these are all technical steps in the right direction, the FAA is now working to establish stronger rules and regulations, with their Notice of Proposed Rulemaking on remote ID for drones.

There were many signs of progress coming from large enterprises last year.

UPS Flight Forward, for example, the subsidiary of United Parcel Service that is carrying out these drone flights, obtained formal certification from the FAA as an air carrier.

Wing, a division of Alphabet, Google’s parent company, launched a small residential drone-based delivery service which will carry small packages from downtown Christiansburg, Va., to nearby neighborhoods.

These and others are being rolled out under the FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program, and edge computing, security and asset management software systems are adapting to support “assets in motion” at an unprecedented scale.

Commercial and government drones that perform important missions can be both controlled by IoT approaches (instrumenting each drone with the right sensors, collecting the data, and operating more efficiently in real-time) but they also contribute to creative new use cases as part of larger IoT deployments.

These can include precision agriculture in rural areas, as well as public safety in densely populated urban areas. Fleets of drones can record and communicate progress and risks on large construction sites and can monitor the energy grid by traveling to places where it would be expensive and challenging for human beings to go.

The monitoring and maintenance benefits alone of drone-based systems, attached to larger “connected” places using secure IoT and edge computing capabilities are driving substantial ROI, whether saving money on people and road vehicles, addressing risk or eliminating downtime using intelligent preventative and predictive maintenance.

Think for a minute about what drones can include:

  • Radios (including eventually bi-directional signaling as discussed earlier)
  • GPS for location information
  • Remote data transfer
  • Video and still cameras for recording people, things and entire transportation systems
  • Temperature and humidity sensors for weather monitoring and forecasting
  • Package pick up and delivery arms
  • Seed and fertilizer scattering for precision farming
  • Bright lights for search and rescue missions

Key to the success of drones in real life over the next few years will be access to networks (radio and satellite) including 5G and 6G in the next decade, and of course embedded computing at the “moveable edge” which must be secured and tested for reliability given the inevitability of increased “remote control” over larger geographic areas.

With ClearBlade’s IoT platform for logistics, all data points to higher productivity. It all stems from smarter tracking and analytics performed by a common software stack on-premise, at the edge, and in the cloud.

When tracking and analyzing multiple drones and applications, a common software platform that can run on the range of hardware components and protocols is a must. It also must be fast enough to keep pace and secure enough to pass regulatory requirements.

Drone delivery is advancing along with the technologies required to make the Internet of Things possible. Building a system on ClearBlade will future proof your logistics systems including supporting drones and other “driverless” craft.

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