Drones have been forecasted as the future of delivery for many years now. With the pandemic raising the risk for essential delivery drivers, it seems the moment for drones to emerge as a viable solution is here. So how soon will we be hiring more drone pilots than delivery drivers to get consumers their goods?
In the U.S., it’ll take a while. One primary reason is that airspace isn’t easily shared.
“Between…controlled airspace [where big commercial airplanes fly] and the grass is a section of the airspace that is not controlled, but used by general aviation, private flyers, helicopters, and others (usually lumped together and called general aviation, or GA), using visual flight rules,” points out aviation lobbyist Andrew Charlton. “Drone operators want to share that bit of the airspace with manned aircraft. Herein lies the problem.”
In short, it’s a regulation nightmare. Amazon Prime Air has been itching to get delivery drones into the mainstream for years. But safety, security, privacy, and other regulations have kept the project grounded.
“We will deploy when and where we have the regulatory support needed to safely realize our vision,” Amazon states on its Prime Air page. “We’re working with regulators and industry to design an air traffic management system that will recognize who is flying what drone, where they are flying, and whether they are adhering to operating requirements.”
Amazon certainly isn’t alone in getting fleets of delivery drones ready to fly throughout the U.S. when they get the greenlight. Google’s drone arm called Project Wing has flown thousands of test flights both in the U.S. and in Australia. In September 2016, the Project Wing team delivered burritos to students at Virginia Tech in what was, at the time, the largest and longest drone delivery test on U.S. soil. UPS has used delivery drones to ship blood, medicine, and vaccines to facilities across Rwanda, while Rakuten is experimenting with the technology in Japan.
Medical delivery drones have gotten the quickest approval recently. In May, the FAA approved medical drone delivery by Zipline for COVID-19 response efforts in North Carolina. The drones are allowed to fly hospital supplies, including PPE, about 32 miles between a launch facility and nearby hospitals.
And what will a delivery drone job force look like? Drone pilots aren’t comparable in skills to a delivery driver. Training and certifications are highly specialized, and the job requires advanced knowledge of FAA regulations, which has made pilots previously trained to fly traditional aircraft terrific job candidates.
But a drone fleet also requires highly specialized software engineers, hardware engineers, technicians, mechanics, and inspectors. Take a look at this job description for drone repair technicians, for example. That’s why most organizations considering delivery drones are partnering with companies dedicated to drone technology to power their fleets. Drone startup Flirtey, for example, touts projects with NASA, Johns Hopkins University of Medicine, Remote Area Medical, New Zealand Land Search & Rescue, Domino’s and 7-Eleven.
“It’s a fascinating movement, one that has gained speed during the pandemic for sure,” says Claire Reese, The HT Group’s Director of Staffing Services. “But moving from delivery drivers to delivery drones will take a complete job force restructure and is a major pivot when it comes to risk management.”
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