Along with robots and flying cars, drones are the distant future that we once all dreamt of. Yet now they are an undeniable reality that we are beginning to notice all around us. They have the potential to save lives and to provide our lives with greater everyday convenience. Drones can be applied to various fields and deliver impressive results, but the flying bots are not without their challenges. Technology is advancing quickly, but sometimes this is too fast for human society to manage.
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The commercial use of drones
Drones, or unmanned aircraft vehicles (UAVs), have become a more common sight in recent years. They are frequently used by daytrippers looking to capture the best possible shot of an area of natural beauty or architectural wonder. But more than just a specialist hobby, drones are also commonly used for various commercial purposes.
Drone technology has various use, and it dates back as far as the second world war. The current applications include the tracking of extreme weather occurrences, border surveillance, crop monitoring, building safety inspection, or aerial photography for events, journalism, or film.
Drone delivery is an area that has long been talked about but is still not quite ‘off the ground.’ Amazon first spoke of the potential of drone delivery back in 2013. So why is this great potential not already in everyday practice?
Though the technology is already here, government authorities have so far hindered the expansion of commercial drones, which would otherwise have been possible. The main restriction is that aviation authorities, such as the U.S. Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), prohibits drone flights that are beyond the ‘line of sight’ for the remote pilot.
This law means that commercial delivery would not be possible in most cases. Regulations also do not allow drones to weigh over 55 pounds (25kg) or to fly in the dark. Drones must also fly below 400 feet (120 meters) in most countries, as this is the zone that is not controlled by aviation authorities for air traffic.
Traffic management is an obstacle that drones will need to overcome to prevent collisions with any other objects in flight. In 2019, the British government extended the no-fly zone around airports, in which drone flight is disallowed. It is common to have drone no-fly zones in place around the military, national borders, government buildings, or tourist sites with high numbers of visitors.
However, as technology has advanced and drone capabilities have improved, government restrictions concerning drones have become more lenient.
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WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, uses drones to deliver blood samples or other urgent medical supplies across the campus. The drones reduce a 45-minute journey to just 10 minutes.
This is through a partnership with UPS Flight Forward, a subsidiary of UPS. The company was given freedom by the FAA to fly drones without restrictions at university, hospital, and corporate campuses. Flights at WakeMed were the first in the country that went beyond the pilot’s line of sight, and more than one thousand flights have already been made.
UPS has been permitted by the FAA to fly drones with unlimited restrictions, similar to aircraft. The company plans to make more deliveries in residential areas, possibly with drones launched from a delivery vehicle.
The rival of UPS, FedEx, has partnered with Walgreens and Wing Aviation, a subsidiary of Alphabet, the parent company of Google. Walgreens pharmacy store chain has been testing an on-demand, delivery-by-drone scheme in Christiansburg, Virginia.
Test services run by Wing Aviation have grown in various locations, including Australia, Finland, and California. The project was started for humanitarian purposes, such as helping in disaster relief and delivering defibrillator kits to heart attack victims. But Alphabet also has in mind everyday products, such as groceries. Certain products, such as probiotics, need to be delivered within a short space of time to prevent damage.
Amazon unveiled a new drone design earlier this year, Amazon Prime Air, which is capable of vertical and continuous forward flight. The rotors are covered for safety, and it has wings for sustained flight. It also has six aspects of motion, and not the standard four aspects. Amazon says that the Prime Air service is able to carry packages of less than 5 pounds (2.27kg) up to 15 miles within 30 minutes. It has not yet been revealed when or where this is going to be piloted, but the company promises it is ‘coming soon.’
The e-commerce giant first announced Prime Air in 2016 and conducted a successful drone delivery in Cambridge, England. But since then, it has come up against problems with regulations.
There are a number of other companies that are seeking government approval or conducting flights in countries around the globe. Zipline is an American company that operates drone flights of emergency medical supplies in African countries, including Rwanda and Ghana. DJI (Dajiang) is a Chinese company with headquarters in Shenzhen, China, and offices around the world. It holds around 70 percent of the global consumer and enterprise drone market.
Though it has had certain obstacles to overcome, drone technology has matured, and this has been recognized by governments. The great promise of drone delivery will be here very soon, and the impact that this will have on various industries is sure to be enormous. For once, the sky really is the limit.