In 2013, Jeff Bezos revealed plans for Prime Air – Amazon’s drone delivery service. 2014 saw announcements of major logistics companies partnering with emerging drone startups. By 2017, there was radio silence. The hype largely fizzled out and drone delivery never really materialized beyond basic proof of concept tests. Only a few companies were the exception, such as Zipline, which thrived on highly-specific use cases.
Now in 2022, nearly a decade after the initial announcement, Amazon promised that the first drone deliveries will begin in cities such as California and Texas before the end of the year. Admittedly, some companies are further ahead. Google’s Wing came up alongside the early hype and found some traction in Australia, completing over 100,000 deliveries in 2021. Still, the commercial feasibility of drone delivery is shaky at best, as it continues to face a slew of technological, cost, and infrastructure challenges. For instance, the cost of a single delivery during recent trials amounted to $484, with Amazon hoping to bring this down to $63 by 2025. This is about 20x more than it costs for ground delivery.
So, are drones dead in the water? Not quite.
While widespread drone delivery is still in the works, commercial drone use has exploded over the last decade, just not in a way most people would notice. From inspecting power lines to servicing wind turbines, there is an ever-growing number of industrial use cases to accelerate processes, improve safety, or otherwise make various elements more efficient.
Infrastructure monitoring and crisis response are among the most popular applications. And while the public’s eye is fixed firmly on deliveries, the rest of the industry is actively developing the hard and soft infrastructure required to enable and broaden all these other various value-added use cases. Which, notably, will also lay the groundwork for increased delivery feasibility. That means building out drone management systems, working with air traffic authorities on integrating them into the common airspace, fleshing out legal and technical frameworks, figuring out how to practically and safely enable BVLOS (Beyond Visual Line of Sight) autonomous flights, and so much more.
The drone itself is just a small cog in a much larger machine. The real hurdle is developing the rest of the ecosystem to support safe flight. Let’s take a look at what is currently happening behind the scenes to give you a better idea.
BLVOS Projects & Cellular Networks
My team at LMT recently completed a cross-continent drone flight demonstration as part of a European project called Comp4Drones, which aims to provide a framework for key technologies enabling safe autonomous drone flights. The aim of our demonstration was to test command and control functions for beyond-the-visual line of sight (BVLOS) flights using a cellular network as a communication channel. In this particular demonstration, the pilot was in Spain, whereas the drone itself was located in Latvia 3,500km away. To put it simply, we piloted a drone on the other side of the continent via cell towers. If drones are to see widespread commercial use, they need to be able to fly BVLOS. Be it automatically or manually, drones must be able to fly considerable distances without someone physically watching over them.
But the main question that arises is one of safety. Because the moment drones start raining out of the sky or get lost, it will set the industry back another 10 years. No business wants to be on the front page news because a drone carrying their package fell out of the sky and hurt somebody, or worse. This is why cellular networks are so crucial for the future. We need to reach the drone at any phase of the flight. Cellular network-connected drones are able to use mobile networks with their high reliability, existing infrastructure, and wide coverage.
Accordingly, in our experiment, piloting the drone from 3,500km away was just one of the parameters in this chain of variables. My team already proved possible at a 5G Techritory demonstration back in 2019. Instead, the main idea was to demonstrate the possibility to pilot a drone located far away, using tools that allow the pilot to forecast cellular network coverage in the preflight phase and in real time. If you take a trip to the countryside, you will see just how spotty mobile coverage can be. A drone can’t afford to lose signal, so a safe flight requires the drone to take the best route, namely one with optimum coverage. One way to guarantee that would be to do on-site network measurements. But that is just not scalable.
The really interesting thing about this experiment was that we did fully remote network forecasting. During the flight, we followed network parameters such as network strengths, interference, and other network KPI parameters in real time. We demonstrated, among other things, that a BVLOS flight using a cellular network is viable. This brings us one step closer to broadening the possibilities of drone use.
Keeping Drones in the Sky
So, if you’re wondering why drone deliveries aren’t here yet, it is because we’re still figuring out how best to keep the drones in the sky. But once we do, and the infrastructure is in place, the floodgates will open. Not just for drones, but for all types of big and small manned and unmanned aerial vehicles. With the advent of Urban Air Mobility, it is not just packages that may be flying overhead, but passengers too. We just have to build the sky roads first.