Drones aren’t clog­ging skies yet, but don’t rule them out

The Tribune (SLO) - - Espresso - BY ELLEN ROSEN

If you’ve been wor­ry­ing that drones would be fill­ing the skies over your head, drop­ping pack­ages off day af­ter day at your neigh­bor’s house, leav­ing food on doorsteps or pho­tograph­ing your ev­ery move, you can re­lax a lit­tle. At least for now.

The hype over com­mer­cial drones is, so far, largely just that. One of the peo­ple who con­trib­uted to that hype was Jeff Bezos, the Ama­zon founder. In a “60 Min­utes” in­ter­view in De­cem­ber 2013, he pre­dicted that de­liv­er­ies by drones could be­come com­mon­place within five years.

The fifth an­niver­sary of Bezos’ pre­dic­tion has come and gone, but wide­spread de­liv­er­ies by drone are not yet a re­al­ity, nei­ther by Ama­zon nor by any other com­pany.

Reg­u­la­tory thick­ets, tech­ni­cal com­plex­ity and the pub­lic’s skit­tish­ness have proved to be for­mi­da­ble hur­dles. At a min­i­mum, the un­re­solved is­sues in­clude whether it is safe to al­low drones to fly be­yond a pi­lot’s vis­ual line of sight, to op­er­ate at night and to fly over peo­ple.

But that doesn’t mean there’s likely to be a drone-free fu­ture. And maybe there shouldn’t be.

Test pro­grams around the world that use the tech­nol­ogy for life­sav­ing phar­ma­ceu­ti­cals as well as for food and even cof­fee are at­tempt­ing to prove that de­liv­ery by drones is not only safe, but ef­fi­cient and en­vi­ron­men­tally sound.

Sev­eral com­pa­nies, in­clud­ing Zi­pline, which is dis­tribut­ing blood by drone in Rwanda, and Swoop Aero, an Aus­tralian com­pany that is dis­pens­ing vac­cines and other med­i­ca­tion on Van­u­atu in the Pa­cific, are fo­cused on med­i­cal needs.

Oth­ers are turn­ing their sights on con­sumers, hop­ing drones can be part of the answer to help­ing small busi­nesses com­pete with be­he­moth re­tail­ers – or even help­ing the big guys keep their com­pet­i­tive edge.

Ul­ti­mately, says an­a­lyst Colin Snow, whether for sun­screen or sushi, the “big ques­tion is whether it makes eco­nomic sense to do ‘last mile' de­liv­ery by drone. Some stud­ies say yes, while oth­ers say no.”

Chi­nese avi­a­tion ad­min­is­tra­tors, for ex­am­ple, have al­ready ap­proved drone de­liv­er­ies by the e-com­merce gi­ant JD.com and de­liv­ery gi­ant SF Hold­ing Co. But in the United States, it will de­pend on whether reg­u­la­tors even­tu­ally al­low drone com­pa­nies to have au­ton­o­mous sys­tems in which mul­ti­ple air­craft are over­seen by one pi­lot and whether they can fly be­yond the vi­sion of that pi­lot. Cur­rent reg­u­la­tions do not per­mit mul­ti­ple drones per op­er­a­tor with­out a waiver. Op­er­a­tors like Wing, the drone-de­liv­ery com­pany owned by Google par­ent Al­pha­bet, have that capability.

But the im­me­di­ate eco­nomic re­turn isn’t clear yet. Ac­cord­ing to the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wing, James Burgess, “scale doesn’t con­cern us right now. We strongly be­lieve that even­tu­ally we will be able to de­velop a de­liv­ery ser­vice for com­mu­ni­ties that will en­able them to trans­port items in just a few min­utes at low cost.”

The com­pany, whose drones can now travel round trip up to 20 kilo­me­ters – just over 12 miles – is par­tic­i­pat­ing in var­i­ous stages of test­ing on three dif­fer­ent con­ti­nents. Its first pi­lot pro­gram is in a sub­urb of Can­berra, Aus­tralia, where it is work­ing with lo­cal mer­chants to de­liver small pack­ages, in­clud­ing over-the-counter medicine, as well as food. The Aus­tralian reg­u­la­tors have is­sued a per­mit to al­low one pi­lot to op­er­ate up to 20 drones at a time with vir­tual over­sight.

“We’ve tried to keep ex­pec­ta­tions to a min­i­mum and stayed hum­ble. We didn’t have a lot of pre­con­ceived no­tions,” Burgess said. The Wing drone is a hy­brid that in­cludes, yes, wings for hor­i­zon­tal fly­ing, as well as minia­tur­ized pro­pel­lers – like a he­li­copter’s – that al­low for hov­er­ing over a des­ti­na­tion. Some­what sur­pris­ingly, the most pop­u­lar item or­dered in the Aus­tralia pi­lot is cof­fee, which can be re­ceived – still hot – in as lit­tle as three min­utes from the time the or­der is placed.

The Vir­ginia site, in Blacks­burg, near Vir­ginia Tech, is one of 10 cho­sen by the Fed­eral Avi­a­tion Ad­min­is­tra­tion as part of its Un­manned Air­craft Sys­tems In­te­gra­tion Pi­lot Pro­gram.

The 10 were culled from 149 ap­pli­ca­tions from “state, lo­cal and tribal gov­ern­ments,” agency spokesman Les Dorr said in an email. Those in the in­dus­try didn’t ap­ply di­rectly, but could show their in­ter­est, he said, and more than 2,800 com­pa­nies re­sponded.

Wing and Uber are two of the com­pa­nies par­tic­i­pat­ing. But Ama­zon’s Prime Air di­vi­sion is not among those test­ing its tech­nol­ogy. In a state­ment is­sued when the 10 lo­cales were an­nounced last May, the com­pany said, “While it’s un­for­tu­nate the ap­pli­ca­tions we were in­volved with were not se­lected, we sup­port the Ad­min­is­tra­tion’s ef­forts to cre­ate a pi­lot pro­gram aimed at keep­ing Amer­ica at the fore­front of avi­a­tion and drone in­no­va­tion.”

Ama­zon’s Prime Air is, how­ever, part of a con­sor­tium of com­pa­nies par­tic­i­pat­ing in the Euro­pean Union’s test of drone de­liv­er­ies in Bel­gium.

A num­ber of smaller drone com­pa­nies are in­volved in test­ing pro­grams else­where.

JA­SON HENRY NYT

James Burgess, the chief ex­ec­u­tive of Wing, the drone com­pany owned by Google par­ent Al­pha­bet, holds the com­pany’s “Hum­ming­bird” de­liv­ery drone March 13 in Moun­tain View.

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