The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) just granted drone delivery company Zipline permission to fly its drones beyond the visual line of sight. In doing so, Zipline joins a growing list of small parcel delivery companies with clearance to fly drones. Earlier this year, UPS subsidiary Flight Forward, uAvionix, and Phoenix Air Unmanned earned the same permission. If your company regularly delivers lightweight packages to customers, the odds of your using drones as their mode of transportation soon just went up.
Prior to the new approval, when a drone flew, human observers had to be strategically located along the entire route to ensure no interference with other aircraft. With the FAA growing increasingly more friendly to drones that fly beyond the visual line of sight, supply chain management is rapidly progressing with the options for delivery of small parcels.
The FAA is using these first drone delivery launches as a step toward formal rulemaking, which will help fast-track similar business models. The drone companies will be capable of delivering small packages like medical supplies to rural areas and expand their customers’ reach. It represents a major leap forward from past drone delivery, which was limited geographically, often to a one-mile-plus radius from distribution centers.
The new Zipline drone will be able to carry parcels of up to eight pounds within a 10-mile radius. Flights will take about 10 minutes, and the drones will be able to land on spaces as small as a doorstep. Most e-commerce deliveries fall well within that size, coming in around five pounds or less.
To receive FAA approval, the drone makers had to prove the case that they could safely operate with autonomous technology to monitor airspace and avoid collisions with aircraft. Big retailers like Walmart are already interested in drone delivery. Walmart, in fact, has partnered with several drone delivery companies and has 36 drone delivery hubs in six different states.
The United States isn’t the first country in the drone delivery race, so taking this step represents an important key in the country’s ability to become a leader. Both the automated nature of drone delivery and their zero emissions level also mean drone delivery can offer the supply chain another way to meet sustainability goals going forward.
It’s a promising sign as last year, e-commerce giant Amazon tried to launch its own line of drone delivery, and all eyes watched as the company’s efforts sputtered to a halt. The company’s Prime Air service hasn’t been able to clear the hurdles for flights beyond the visual line of sight. The company conducted test deliveries at homes in locations with specific requirements, running into several issues. In the meantime, the other drone delivery companies have managed to leapfrog ahead and are now clearing the path for Amazon and others to catch up. Without a doubt, widespread adoption of drone delivery is just around the corner for most e-commerce companies, a win for everyone.