Drone deliveries are coming to Utah
Thanks to its signature combination of technical expertise and wide-open spaces, Utah has positioned itself as a leader in drone technology. At the state level, regulators have considered the legal aspects of drone technology and stand ready to make unmanned, same-day deliveries a reality—and possibly even flying cars.
But as ideal as those technologies would have been during the pandemic this year, drone industry leaders say the technology and needed infrastructure just aren’t available yet. The advent of COVID-19 has actually delayed the advent of drone shipping and delivery they say, and it could take some time for Utah, in particular, to get back on track, even as test flights and deliveries begin in other states.
But state and industry leaders agree—the drones are coming, and local businesses should take steps now to consider how the coming shipping revolution could change the way they operate.
Drone corridors are being planned
When Timothy Bean and his business partner relocated from Silicon Valley to start drone defense company Fortem Technologies, they chose Utah for two reasons: first, there’s the prevalence of open airspace over private undeveloped property―this is necessary to comply with federal laws that ban the operation of experimental drones above people. Second, Utah planned for the future by establishing a regulatory framework and infrastructure for the operation of drones.
For the sake of efficiency, drone operators would probably prefer to fly in a straight line from point-of-origin to destination, according to Jared Esselman, director of aeronautics at the Utah Department of Transportation. But doing so, he says, could cause drones to become a nuisance, preventing a potential barrier to public acceptance of autonomous delivery.
“At 4,000 feet in the air,” Esselman says, “you can fly in a straight line.” However, most people don’t want lower-flying drones “over the house, over the park, or over the school, so you can’t fly in a straight line.”
As the department considered where drones could fly without public rancor, they hit upon a viable solution: “Everyone unanimously already accepts traffic on the roads,” Esselman explains. “So we take the already accepted transportation corridors and raise them 400-800 feet, and make three-dimensional corridors in the air.”
These corridors would operate very much the same way roads are already managed, with traffic divided into lanes with assigned directions of travel and UDOT managing the rules regulating the corridor without controlling each individual drone within it. Drones could be equipped with electronic “license plates” that could be read by UDOT so that tickets or penalties could be assessed, and UDOT would maintain the ability to close a given section of any corridor in the event an incident prohibited transit—just as UDOT can close roads around the state if needed.
“It works,” Esselman says. “And we know it works because we actually have a traffic simulator that we developed with the University of Utah.”
Most of the technology needed to implement these hypothetical corridors already exists. In fact, Esselman believes UDOT could “digitize” the entire airspace between North Ogden and Payson for less than it costs to install a new interstate intersection. All they need, he says, is legislative approval—and funding—to establish their first test corridors.
Drone technologies are being developed
Utah was set to begin a trial run with UPS this past summer before COVID-19 broke out, Esselman recounts. Budget stress caused by the pandemic has put a damper on government and business budget alike, delaying multiple pilot studies. In the meantime, Utah fell behind other states as Ohio built its first corridor and North Carolina began to run its first pilots, Esselman says.
Funding the construction of corridors poses a unique challenge. While certain companies have offered to fund their development, industry leaders believe that could lead to an anti-competitive environment that could prevent smaller companies from taking advantage of the benefits drone technology has to offer.
“If you were to run a dry cleaning business and you say you will deliver for $.50 per shirt, that’s a great business,” Bean says. “But the dry cleaning business didn’t have to build the $7 million roads between their business and my house.”
The need for an effective regulatory framework for drones may be the biggest current barrier to autonomous delivery, it’s not the only reason why humans are still needed to bring packages to your porch. Certain technologies necessary to such a service have yet to be developed, and the business models remain unclear, according to Shawn Milne, board chairman for Deseret UAS, a nonprofit with a drone testing facility in Tooele County.
For example, for a truly autonomous drone to complete household deliveries successfully, it needs to be equipped with the ability to locate the correct porch—and to avoid dropping the package in some random spot in the yard. Drone delivery services would also have to take the package’s size and dimensions into account—a small change in the shape or weight of the object could have a substantial impact on the drone’s ability to fly safely, Milne says.
Some of these problems could be addressed with innovative use of existing technology, according to Bean. A pizza delivery service, for example, could provide subscribers with some kind of emitter used to indicate where the drone should deliver its package, which would be reasonably uniform. But reliance on workarounds could render early drone deliveries cumbersome and inefficient.
“The first iteration of drop-off by a drone will probably be a little clunky,” Milne says. “It will probably be restricted to small areas, like most technological rollouts, and they’re going to do it in places that get past the majority of the barriers that make it clunky.”
The need to test early drone delivery services in areas that minimize the likelihood of disaster if a drone crashes, and aren’t populated by difficult obstacles like skyscrapers, means the first pilot programs will likely take place in suburbs where early drone infrastructure is made available, Milne says. That could mean Utah will be among the first states to get access to commercial drone delivery, given the number of drone companies already located in the state and assuming the UDOT program receives funding.
“I think we really do have a potential for it here,” Milne says. “Arpanet started the internet, and we had one of the original nodes. It was just quietly here before it became a commercialization tool. I think we’re going to have that here, which may help early adoption among our higher-net worth people here.”
But the need to maximize profits, Milne says, means full-scale drone delivery service will likely begin in larger cities such as LA. “The real glossy sales pick will probably start in an area with greater population density.”
Drone infrastructure is in the works
Esselman believes the remaining technological barriers to drone delivery will be worked out in the next six to twelve months, with commercial deployment beginning soon thereafter. The first delivery services will be highly specific—medical deliveries hold particular promise he says, because hospitals frequently need to ship small, light packages containing prescriptions or the like between facilities in a time-sensitive manner.
In fact, the University of Utah had worked with UDOT on a medical delivery service using drones prior to the pandemic, though a University of Utah spokesperson said the project is now postponed.
After medical transport, Esselman says he believes business-to-business services will be the next to come online. These services might move essential goods from a distribution center to a local store. Initially, drones might move packages from the UPS distribution center to a local UPS store, with deliveries between unaffiliated businesses following as inter-business shipping perfects the model.
Delivery to individual homes, he says is likely 10-15 years from now, because “getting to homes is a little more difficult than a planned route from node to node.”
Deliveries to large apartment complexes in cities could prove even more challenging. “Downtown New York is so congested with so many high rises that it might be one of the last places to see drone deliveries,” Esselman says.
Early delivery services will be limited to what existing drones can carry—mostly small, uniform packages weighing less than a few pounds, according to Paul Huish, founder of Park City-based DroneHive. The trouble, he says, is identifying products that meet those specifications and need to be shipped in such a timely manner that it justifies the likely premium that will come with drone delivery at first. Groceries to replace a forgotten ingredient for a recipe could be one example, or possibly items such as diapers or a phone charger. The most obvious example outside prescription and over-the-counter medications, Huish says, may actually be takeout.
“A cup of coffee is a great example,” he says. “It’s a much better solution to deliver via drone than Uber eats.”
But the real purpose of these services isn’t delivering coffee to droves of cafe-starved former office workers—though everyone could probably go for that this year. The real intent, Huish says, is running trials to demonstrate the safety and efficacy of drone delivery, gradually scaling up the service until it can move larger and larger packages and, eventually, even people.
Drones may still be a ways off from shuttling Amazon packages from door-to-door, Esselman says, but businesses do need to begin considering the ways in which drones will change the way they do business.
“If you’re already using UPS or Amazon, be prepared for that to start moving via drone,” he says. “You don’t have to be prepared now, but be prepared in the next five years.”
Businesses that regularly send or receive packages from such services will likely need to ensure their business has a place, free from obstructions such as trees and where customers won’t be bothered by the noise of incoming drones, to receive drone shipments. “Start looking at your parking space,” Esselman says. “Could you put in a landing spot? Start thinking about those things ahead of time.”
Esselman also believes there is a need for organizations such as chambers of commerce and municipal planning boards to start thinking about drones. “It’s coming,” he says, “and it’s going to take a lot of urban planning and community planning to be ready for this.”