Moving Closer to Ubiquitous Urban Drone Delivery
Over the last decade, the use of unmanned aircraft for delivery of a wide range of cargo has been trialed extensively around the world. The most common use case is the delivery of time-sensitive goods such as vaccines, medical supplies and food to isolated regions or disaster-stricken areas.
Drone delivery within urban areas is a more complex affair, as the increased population and structure density creates a far greater risk of injury or property damage due to collisions or aircraft failure. Flights over people and traffic, and in close proximity to buildings, are considered to be advanced operations by aviation rule makers. This means that any drone operator looking to break into this market needs to adhere to stringent safety protocols and ensure that their equipment performs with the utmost of reliability.
To accommodate the increased aerial traffic that would result from drone deliveries at scale, cities also need to evolve their infrastructure. Recently, the city of Plano, Texas has started to look more closely at changing zoning regulations that currently limit the ability of drone delivery flights to operate from commercial premises.
While U.S. regulations concerning drone flight paths and altitudes are handled by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), takeoff and landing sites are governed locally by city ordinances. Plano City Council is considering a change in regulations that would allow restaurants, retail outlets, shopping centers and other commercial entities to host drone delivery hubs. If successful, the zoning change could also potentially enable AAM (advanced air mobility) operations – in other words, manned and unmanned aerial taxis.
Plano’s Planning and Zoning Commission has already recommended approval of the zoning changes, and the final decision will be made once the council is able to further investigate the details of the drone delivery operations and understand their impact on local businesses and residents. Should the change go ahead, this will open the door for established companies already operating in other parts of the United States.
One such operator is Zipline, a drone delivery specialist who first made unmanned aviation history when the company was granted authorization by the FAA to carry out the first autonomous BVLOS (beyond visual line of sight) delivery flights without the use of ground-based observers. Key to this Zipline milestone was the use of a unique detect-and-avoid (DAA) solution based on passive acoustic detection.
Reliable DAA technology is a cornerstone of successful BVLOS operation, and one of the main safety features that the FAA looks out for when deciding on approvals. Zipline trialed many different technologies, and struggled to find a solution that would detect aircraft and other potential hazards while also being compact, lightweight and low-powered enough for their drone platform.
The ingenious acoustic detection solution that Zipline came up with uses an array of slim, aerodynamic microphones placed along the wing of the drone. Sounds such as those made by the propellers or engines of another aircraft will reach each microphone in the array at slightly different times, and this difference can be used to work out the bearing of the sound source. Sophisticated deep learning models are also employed by Zipline to accurately identify potential hazards and track their movement.
This DAA technology has enabled Zipline’s hundreds-strong fleet of its Platform 1 drones to operate safely and at scale, racking up 10,000 successful commercial deliveries each week. The fixed-wing delivery drones utilize a specially designed parachute and packaging system to deliver cargo safely and accurately from several hundred feet in the air.
Beginning in 2024, Zipline will introduce the Platform 2 system, a hybrid VTOL drone that can hover in place while a small “droid” robot lowers the package on a tether. While Platform 1 is intended for longer-range deliveries, Platform 2 provides the maneuverability and precision required to operate in dense urban environments and highly populated areas, and can accurately deliver within a 2-foot radius even in significant wind and rain.
The approval of BVLOS flights for Zipline, as well as a number of other operators in the United States, marks a significant step in the integration of large-scale commercial drone operations into the national airspace, and data from these flights will be used to inform the FAA’s forthcoming final ruling on BVLOS.
Safe and reliable long-range drone delivery with Halo
Drone delivery is one of the most demanding in commercial use cases, requiring operators to demonstrate the highest levels of safety and reliability. In addition to detect-and-avoid capabilities, delivery drone platforms also require a robust communication system that can provide redundancy and ensure connectivity even under highly challenging conditions.
Elsight’s Halo is a AI-based connectivity solution that utilizes multiple providers (cellular, satellite, RF) providing a bonded solution from all available links for an always-on connection. The proven system has been instrumental in allowing many BVLOS drone platforms to gain regulatory certification and is trusted by an ever-growing number of industry leaders around the world. Halo also features built-in Remote ID capabilities, ensuring compliance with global airspace requirements.
To find out more about how Halo could get your drone delivery operations off the ground, please get in touch.