As part of Day two of Commercial UAV Expo 2020, a virtual event organized by Diversified Communications, the remote attendees had the opportunity to hear a fascinating, and timely, analysis of the issues surrounding one of the hottest trends in our industry: delivery by drones, in a time when a highly contagious pandemic is making human deliveries less desirable and highly risky.

The panel was moderated by Lisa Ellman, Executive Director of the Commercial Drone Alliance and had three excellent and eloquent participants: Kevin Wasik, Head of Global Business Development at UPS Flight Forward, Margaret Nagle, Head of Policy and Government Affairs, Wing and Conor French, General Counsel for Zipline.

Ellman opened the session by introducing the panelists and allowing them to tell the audience about themselves and the companies they work for.

Nagle spoke first by describing what Wing is doing in the three countries where they are active right now, namely Australia, Finland and the USA. Wing has delivered tens of thousands of commercial drone deliveries to homes in suburbia in these countries.

“We operate as a regular delivery service,” said Nagle with enthusiasm. “Customers have access to an app where they place their order and the drone delivers the package by gently lowering it to their doorstep.”  

Nagle made emphasis that Wing does a lot of community engagement and they have found the response to be overwhelmingly positive. She concluded by outlining, in general terms, the results of Wing’s participation in the IPP (FAA Integration Pilot Program) and is currently analyzing the potential impact of drone deliveries in the service areas used in the preliminary tests.

French described in detail how Zipline is now performing hundreds of deliveries in Rwanda and Ghana in Africa. In Rwanda, specifically, Zipline is now responsible for 70% of the blood supply deliveries to the entire country. In one specific health hazard, post-partum hemorrhage, blood deliveries by drone has played a significant part in lowering death rates.

“Blood deliveries by drone have contributed significantly in increasing the efficiency of the health system in these countries.” He concluded.

Wasik gave the audience an update on UPS’ effort to focus on medical deliveries and the need to transport blood samples between buildings in large hospital campuses, where specimens that have a half-life of 30 minutes can go bad if they are transported by ground.

“For UPS it was easy to adapt our logistic experience to these large medical facilities, which have grown over time and have become geographically complicated with certain buildings difficult to reach,” explained Wasik. “We have made a significant difference in the efficiency of these particular deliveries.”

There was a question from the audience regarding maximum payload, and Ellman asked the participants to respond with specifics for each organization. Wing and Zipline are carrying payloads of about 3lbs, while UPS is at 4.4lbs. All three mentioned that they are working on heavier versions of their vehicles.  

Ellman then turned the attention of the panelists to the specific issue of distribution during a pandemic by asking the panelist one question: “With so many new developments in technology and policy painfully behind, what changes would you like to see in order for deliveries to be truly scalable?”

Nagle mentioned that they have seen at Wing a steep increase in demand for contactless deliveries with minimal involvement in human intervention with every package. She then added: “It’s still a time-consuming process of approval by exception, which is frustrating, but we are all working hard with the FAA and they are also interested in seeing this technology deployed safely. According to them it’s a crawl-walk-run approach.”

Zipline received a formal request from the Rwandan government to expand operations into urban areas, which brought forth a plethora of new challenges that are being addressed as we speak. “When the government is the one making the request, things are expedited in the regulation process, but this is not something that can be exported to other countries.”

Wasik added that the pandemic was accelerating demand for these types of services.

“The Covid-19 pandemic brought most projects in the world to a screeching halt, but not for drone deliveries!” He explained. “On the contrary, we’ve seen more action and more requests for new initiatives than ever before, and remember we’ve been a cargo airline for 30 years!”

He then mentioned the UPS project in The Villages in Florida, a retirement community with over 130,000 residents, where UPS went from delivering two packages of medicines a day to 15 daily deliveries in the span of a few weeks. The residents are very happy with the service and the contactless delivery has contributed to keeping the community safer from infection. He then added that he would like to see a dedicated FAA FSDO office (Field Standards District Office) dedicated exclusively to issues related to UAVs.

Despite the increased demand, the regulatory process has been slow and challenging. One major challenge is how the FAA is treating the certification process of new unmanned aircraft.

“The FAA is still treating the certification of new unmanned aircraft as their manned counterparts and this might not be a fair process,” began French. “A drone is more similar to a smart phone than to an Airbus jet airliner. Multi-year certifications may not be appropriate, even though we understand the need for strict regulations for anything that flies.”

This issue of what regulations do and shouldn’t not apply to unmanned aircraft, and whether they should all be treated unilaterally is a question that everyone is actively discussing. Should a 5lb drone flying lightweight medical deliveries in a rural area be regulated like a heavy lift cargo drone? Both can fall out of the sky and potentially hurt people and property, but the extent of that damage and the consequences of it would most likely be different. These are the types of conversations the industry will continue to have with regulatory bodies in the coming year.

Then there was a question from the audience regarding the Remote ID Notice of Proposed Rule Making (RID) and Ellman opened the floor for comments from the panelists.

Nagle, from Wing was clear that they submitted comments to the process and are expecting a resolution soon.

“We are transparent, and we want all our aircraft to display who they are and what they are doing. But we need to be careful about the privacy of our customers. Making sure that both these issues are compliant is a big challenge,” stated Magaret. “Also, the current form of RID does not protect the remote control (RC) community, and that needs to change. These hobbyists and unmanned aviation enthusiasts are a great source for talent for all our UAV companies, and they have always complied with their regulations.”

French added that many incidents aren’t coming from the commercial sector but rather from consumers. He cited that the recent reports of mischievous activity in Heathrow and Gatwick airports were the result of irresponsible actors, and not commercial operators performing a mission.

Wasik from UPS reminded the audience that the regularization of drone delivery will not happen before BVLOS flights are commonplace and that RID was a key component of BVLOS.

Ellman brought the panel to an end by soliciting a final comment from each participant with regards to unmanned traffic management (UTM).

In her closing statement, Nagle highlighted that the industry needs to have an independent UTM from the current ATC (Air Traffic Control) for manned aviation. Connor concurred as well, highlighting the need for hard data to build a safety case.

“We need to demonstrate to the regulator that we are safe, and we can only do that with hard data,” Connor added. “Once we can prove our safety, then it will be time to separate the requirements for manned and unmanned aviation. It is possible, but it will require independent systems.”

And in his closing remarks, Wasik emphasized that community outreach is the key to a successful deployment of daily operations. He stated that the pandemic has given the opportunity to all delivery companies to prove the point that delivering packages by unmanned vehicles is a safe alternative to today’s methods and are invaluable tools in helping contain the pandemic.

Although many of the topics that were discussed may sound familiar to those who have been following drone delivery over the past several years, namely that regulations continue to be the challenge to scalability and growth, the growing demand in the pandemic for contactless package delivery, and the FAA’s response is demonstrating a promising trend in the drone delivery sector.