UPS is putting drones in the sky, but not for the obvious reasons

By Alma Fabiani

Updated May 19, 2020 at 01:58 PM

Reading time: 3 minutes

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Only two weeks ago, UPS launched its first fully operational and revenue-generating commercial drone-delivery service—surpassing other tries by competitors like Amazon, FedEx, and Uber. For now, it will only deliver medical supplies in North Carolina but this small step should push us to further our thinking on technology and the future. What place can drones have in the future? Maybe it’s time to go back to tech magnate and Amazon founder Jeff Bezos’ predictions about drones filling the skies to deliver our Domino’s pizzas and Amazon packages, and have a look at three sectors where drones are already starting to appear: healthcare, e-commerce, and humanitarian aid.

Drones first started to get noticed in 2013, when Amazon declared that they could potentially be the next big means of delivery. The media got excited but it soon calmed down again when people realised that this concept would probably take ten years to be put into place. And yet, here we are in 2019, and UPS (surprisingly not Amazon) has started flying drones out for deliveries.

The ‘shipment’ was made possible by collaborating with the California-based drone start-up Matternet. The company’s drone, the M2 quadcopter, left its starting point and flew to Raleigh’s WakeMed hospital. This successful try is the first one of many, with UPS programming to deliver healthcare products in other countries as soon as possible. Even though UPS was involved in this project and deserves some of the credit, most of it should go to Matternet.

Not only has the company worked on the test flight with UPS to deliver medical supplies, but it also works in the e-commerce and humanitarian sectors. In Switzerland, Matternet used vans as helipads as moving distribution hubs for aerial package delivery. This approach is very different to the success in North Carolina as it doesn’t require individuals having to interact with the drones, which remains one of the problems for drone deliveries to become ordinary.

In Switzerland again, cities will soon have quadcopters making deliveries to hospitals in urban areas across the country. The idea is the same as the UPS test flight—drones flying over densely populated areas, using automated landing stations to quickly deliver blood and pathology samples.

The third and last sector where drones are being tested is humanitarian aid. Working with Unicef, the company started testing drone flights in 2016 to explore cost-effective ways of reducing waiting times for HIV testing of infants. By cutting waiting times dramatically, this project could be integrated into Malawi’s health system. Unicef representative in Malawi, Mahimbo Mdoe said in an interview published on the NGO’s website that, “This innovation could be the breakthrough in overcoming transport challenges and associated delays experienced by health workers in remote areas.”

Unlike what many people believe about the drone industry, also known as the Unmanned Aerial Systems (UAS) industry, this technology could mean new careers will be on the rise—with roles like technicians, programmers, operators, network administrators, and software engineers.

The first and most important obstacle that big companies will have to overcome in due time is regulation and approval from whichever countries they’ll be operating in. There’s a difference between being granted a test flight and getting a permit for commercial use. Many questions will need to be answered before anything can be approved—how high will the drones fly, in which areas, how much will they carry?

Drone pilot from the production house Stem Studios, Barney seems hopeful about the future in an interview with Screen Shot, “The possibilities with drones are endless, it’s just a new aerial tool that we use to lift equipment. We’ve had hot air balloons, blimps, birds, planes, helicopters—maybe vertical takeoffs and multi-rotor systems are the future as battery tech shrinks. Personal flying vehicles from films like Back to the Future will use vertical takeoff technology, I’m sure.” When asked about the problem of regulations, he said, “They’re set up for ten thousand and more planes that are in the sky at any given time, which is serious work. Drones are relatively new but these same aviation bodies are those who govern it and you can imagine the risk assessment of unidentified objects in the sky. The main limit is the technology, the reliability of lithium-ion batteries, and signal interference weaknesses. As these two parts of tech strengthen, so will the reliability of drones.”

For now, it remains to be seen whether hauling packages in this way is truly cost-effective, and if drones could save us time and money. Improvements must also be made to the drones’ battery life and performance if people are to receive larger items than a pizza. The closest that any company had come to people’s utopian expectations was Flytrex, with its shipping groceries services across a bay in Reykjavik in August 2017—an accomplishment that remains hard to meet in America due to regulatory issues. Let’s hope that Matternet continues to focus on using new technology to solve more important issues than an ASOS next day delivery.

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