Brooks McKinney

Apr 29th 2020

Are Drone Delivery Services Safe Enough for Takeoff?


Back in the day, urgent deliveries by UPS, Amazon or even the local pizza parlor arrived at your door on four wheels in the hands of a two-legged human.

Don’t look up now, but drone delivery companies are working to land a different type of future in your front yard, one that will keep your pizza hot, save you a late-night trip to the pharmacy or even help you save a life with emergency medical supplies.

Poised for Takeoff

In recent months, reports Wired, several well-known companies including UPS and Google have taken serious steps toward launching commercial drone-based delivery services.

In March, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) authorized UPS and drone maker Matternet to begin using drones, or unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), to deliver medical specimens across North Carolina-based WakeMed’s medical campus in Raleigh, North Carolina. In April, Google spinoff Wing Aviation received the FAA’s first certification for a commercial drone delivery service. And Forbes reports that the FAA has authorized Amazon to conduct a year of drone research, testing and pilot training in authorized flight areas, but not to conduct deliveries yet.

Drone delivery companies tout reduced carbon emissions and quicker delivery times — drones use electric motors and avoid local road congestion — as the key benefits of using drones to make time-sensitive deliveries. Drone operators are also taking advantage of rapid growth in the maturity, availability and reliability of drone technology.

Safety First

Hovering amid this new enthusiasm for drone-based delivery services, however, are questions about how best to ensure air traffic safety, particularly for drones operating in densely populated areas.

“The Federal Aviation Administration is responsible for the safety and security of all aircraft in the National Airspace System,” said an FAA spokesperson. “Our long-term goal is to integrate drones safely into that system so that our society can reap the full benefits of drone technology.”

Integration Challenges

The designs and reliability of drones have greatly improved in recent years but the integration of drones into local and national airspace remains challenging, explains Doug Davis, director of airworthiness and airspace integration for Northrop Grumman, a developer of autonomous aircraft systems.

“If you’re going to operate new aircraft, which is what drones are considered, you need to operate them within the same framework of operational risk and requirements that apply to all aircraft operating in the domestic airspace of the United States,” he said.

Davis’ real concern is not the technical maturity of drones – over the past 15 years the number incidents of operators losing control of their drones has dropped dramatically – but rather, the high potential density of drones above populated areas, and an inadequate knowledge of the aviation environment by a new generation of delivery drone operators.

“Many of these new operators are coming into the field from a purely business perspective, with no aviation background at all,” he explained. “They often just don’t understand what’s in the air with them.”

His fears are compounded, he added, by the current limited ability of drones to avoid collisions with other objects in their path, whether it’s a bird, a building, or another drone. The FAA shares Davis’ concern.

“Several companies have developed technology intended to automatically detect and avoid other aircraft but the technology is still maturing,” admitted the FAA spokesperson. “Solving that challenge would allow longer flights beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight and help enable routine drone delivery.”

Encouraging Innovation

To create an air traffic safety environment where the public is safe and drone delivery service companies can succeed, the FAA is working closely with drone operators such as UPS to define new regulations that support both safety and innovation.

“For drones, we’re focusing on the top-level safety performance we expect rather than dictating a detailed aircraft design that will meet that safety guideline,” explained the FAA spokesperson.

This approach encourages drone operators to meet overall safety and operational requirements while not discouraging them from exploring new, more innovative ways to deliver products and services, the spokesperson added.

Flying Forward

For its part, UPS is trying to build public confidence in drone-based services by simply delivering on its promises:

“UPS has conducted numerous public drone demonstrations for urgent commercial and non-urgent residential deliveries,” said Kyle Peterson, a spokesperson for UPS. “We also partner with GAVI and Zipline to use drones to deliver blood products to remote locations in Africa. These efforts help shape and inform the evolving drone policy in the U.S.”

In July, reports Reuters, UPS announced the creation of a drone delivery subsidiary, UPS Flight Forward, and revealed that it has applied for FAA certification to expand the business.

Managing the Future

Current FAA safety regulations prohibit drones from operating over populated areas or beyond line of sight without an FAA waiver. Any drone to be used for package delivery must obtain an FAA airworthiness certificate. And drones are not allowed to operate at night.

The FAA recognizes, however, that it is operating in a dynamic, technology-driven environment where the pressure to integrate drones safely and efficiently into the national airspace is increasing every day.

To that end, the agency is working with NASA’s Ames Research Center and other federal agencies to develop an Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) system analogous to the current air traffic management system for manned aircraft.

“The UTM system is an automated, machine-to-machine system that does not rely on air traffic controllers,” said NASA Ames’ Marcus Johnson, deputy project manager for NASA’s UTM program. “It relies instead on drones to self-report their positions and flight activities to a group of federated UAS service suppliers on the ground.”

The service suppliers, Johnson adds, share information with each other about the drones’ proposed flight activities, and help deconflict those activities from other operations occurring in the same air space. The service suppliers also communicate with the FAA through a flight information management system.

Since 2016, the UTM program has undergone four phases of testing to demonstrate drones’ ability to operate safely in increasingly dense and challenging traffic environments. NASA reports that the most recent testing was completed in August 2019 and “focused on UAS operations in higher-density urban areas for tasks such as newsgathering and package delivery.”

Reality Check

According to Johnson, the UTM testing revealed that drone operations remain potentially vulnerable to “microclimates” and radio frequency (RF) interference.

“If you operate a drone in dense urban environments, you’re likely to encounter a diverse set of small, localized weather patterns,” Johnson said. “These microclimates can really challenge your situational awareness of current flight conditions, particularly if you’re operating the drone beyond visual line of sight.” In such a situation, Johnson adds, the urban density may also limit an operator’s options for landing a drone quickly and safely.

RF interference also poses a greater potential threat to drone operations than most delivery service companies realize, he added.

“For command and control, drone operators often use the same unlicensed frequency bands — 2.4 GHz and 5.8 GHz — used by residential or commercial Wi-Fi routers,” explained Johnson. If a drone flies too close to an office building where such routers are in use, it can experience a sudden “loss of link,” i.e. a loss of communication with its operator, which can create safety hazards for the drone and people on the ground. RF interference can also be caused by steel-reinforced concrete and other building materials found commonly in the urban environment.

Writing a New Chapter

The final step in integrating drones safely into the national airspace will be to transition the UTM rules of engagement into practice and to gain acceptance for commercial drone operations from all potential stakeholders.

The FAA’s UAS Integration Pilot Program (IPP),created in late 2017, aims to create that harmony. It has brought UAS operators and manufacturers together with state, local and tribal governments to test and validate advanced drone operations in various beyond-line-of-sight applications including infrastructure monitoring, border protection and package delivery.

According to Johnson, the technologies demonstrated by the UTM program have accelerated the delivery industry’s readiness to begin using drones more regularly while helping to inform the FAA’s current drone policy and rulemaking activities.

For its part, the FAA is cautiously optimistic about the future of commercial drone operations.

“Societal acceptance of drones will be predicated on the public’s expectation for safety, just as in the airline industry,” said the FAA spokesperson. “Working together, we can accelerate the development of the UTM ecosystem and usher in the necessary social transformation. It’s an exciting challenge as we integrate unmanned aircraft into our nation’s airspace and help write a new chapter in aviation history.”

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