Drones are so smart and relatively cheap nowadays that everyone and their mothers are interested in them. Everyone wants to see what all the buzz is about. If you haven’t lived under a rock for the past five years or so then you’d know companies like Amazon has been testing their shipping drones. It’s not yet available as the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been formulating regulations to ensure safety for everyone else down below. And with the latest rules revealed in mid 2016, the FAA may have just put a big damper on Amazon’s plans. Now the brown shipping company, UPS, may have a solution to all of the regulatory woes.
Restrictive Drone Rules
Per the summary of the Small Unmanned Aircraft Rule (Part 107), the drone must weigh less than 55 lbs (25kg.) This may not be as big of a deal for Amazon, as their products are smaller consumer goods. The weight of the product, combined with the weight of the drone, should fall under this weight limit for a majority of Amazon’s goods. The rules that sound the death knell for drone shipping for companies like Amazon might just be these ones:
Visual line-of-sight (VLOS) only; the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS. Alternatively, the unmanned aircraft must remain within VLOS of the visual observer.
At all times the small unmanned aircraft must remain close enough to the remote pilot in command and the person manipulating the flight controls of the small UAS for those people to be capable of seeing the aircraft with vision unaided by any device other than corrective lenses.
Small unmanned aircraft may not operate over any persons not directly participating in the operation, not under a covered structure, and not inside a covered stationary vehicle.
These rules severely restrict Amazon’s ability to control the drone from their warehouses. Additionally, it would only allow shipment to areas within close proximity of their warehouses, which eliminates the majority of Amazon’s clientele.
The UPS’ Solution
Based on the latest video from UPS, it looks like they have a solution to the restrictive drone rules. And they will be utilizing what they already have thousands of: Their trucks.
The UPS’ collaboration with drone maker, Workhorse, aims to increase the shipping company’s efficiency while operating in rural areas. UPS has de-scoped the use of drones to aid ground shipping, rather than a direct replacement. Instead of the drone launching directly from the warehouse, it would be launched from the UPS truck. This would effectively cut the truck’s driving destinations in half, as the drone could ideally deliver to every other location. For example, the truck could be delivering a package to house A, while the drone is en route to drop off a package to house B. Then the drone could “redock” with the truck at house C and be prepped with items for house D. According to UPS’ press release:
The drone used in Monday’s test was the Workhorse HorseFly™ UAV Delivery system. It is a high-efficiency, octocopter delivery drone that is fully integrated with Workhorse’s line of electric/hybrid delivery trucks. The drone docks on the roof of the delivery truck. A cage suspended beneath the drone, extends through a hatch into the truck. A UPS driver inside loads a package into the cage and presses a button on a touch screen, sending the drone on a preset autonomous route to an address. The battery-powered HorseFly drone recharges while it’s docked. It has a 30-minute flight time and can carry a package weighing up to 10 pounds.
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This proof of concept should abide by the new FAA rules of maintaining VLOS and remaining within close proximity of the pilot. But it’s uncertain what other implications this may have on UPS’ delivery procedures. The regulations require that a dedicated person, with unobstructed view, to pilot the drone. Does this mean that drone equipped trucks will require one additional person for the sole purpose of piloting the drones? Additionally, how much does the terrain affect where the drones could ship to? Would heavily wooded areas limit this capability? Regardless of the technical and regulatory hurdles, it looks like the omnipresent shipping company is about to get even better and more efficient.