Drones in Logistics: Uses and What the Future Holds

Sep 8, 2020

by Hari Viswanathan

There has been a lot of contention over how truly feasible Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs) are as last-mile logistics solutions. Currently, Amazon, Wing, Zipline, Uber, and Matternet have all developed unique UAV delivery platform technologies to tackle the problem of last-mile delivery. 

While package delivery and military operations are the most covered use cases for Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS), there are lucrative opportunities for their use in logistics, particularly in tackling the last-mile delivery and rural/urban-first logistics which tend to be generally high-cost operations. We’ve already seen the value of using UAVs for warehouse inventory management, and current use cases are being explored and utilized to speed up efficiency and productivity and lower costs across many industries. The applications are incredibly timely in addressing delivery challenges during COVID-19, as demonstrated recently in Christiansburg, VA, where a local public library partnered with Wing to deliver books to students during library closure due to the pandemic.

But first, a primer

A few major topics need to be addressed to adequately cover the use of UAVs in logistics. These are:

  1. Regulation and risk mitigation
  2. Airframe technology
  3. Air Traffic Management

Regulation and risk mitigation

The regulatory environment plays a large role in determining how quickly UAVs can participate in the logistics industry.

Current thrusts of regulatory frameworks focus on mitigating the interference of UAV operations inside of manned aviation airspace—mostly in uncontrolled or unrestricted airspace. Operators are required to have ground risk mitigation, Detect-and-Avoid technology for air risk mitigation, a comprehensive concept of operations, and regulatory permissions from their local civil aviation authority to fly Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) operations. 

Detect-and-Avoid technology is needed to detect aircraft that may be in violation of the “well clear” requirement (i.e. within possibility of a mid-air collision). Ground risk mitigation, meanwhile, focuses on technologies and operational safeguards to prevent a UAV and its payload from crashing into property, living things, or people in the event of flight failure. 

Airframe Technology

The sheer variety and selection of UAV airframes has exploded in the past 5 years due to major pushes by UAV technology companies in developing unique airframes designed around the problem of carrying a payload safely, efficiently, and as far as possible. 

In general, these airframes can be grouped into the following categories:

Airframe TypeWhat is it?AdvantagesDisadvantagesOperators
Fixed Wing UAVA fixed wing aircraft with payload carrying capabilities-Long range and endurance
-Able to carry higher weight payloads
-Cheap to build and power
-Not necessary to design from the ground-up
-Established ecosystem of autopilot and ground control software
-Limited maneuverability
-Requires horizontal takeoff (slingshot/catapult or running start)
-Requires horizontal landing or a net to catch it mid-air
Vertical Takeoff-and-Landing (VTOL)Fixed-wing aircraft with additional propellers and a tilt wing to enable vertical take-off and landing-Does not require horizontal takeoff or landing
-Range and endurance is similar to fixed-wing
-Technologically complex (more moving parts means more mechanical components with the potential to fail)
-Expensive to design and build
-May require custom autopilot and ground control software
→ Wing
→ Amazon
Unmanned Single-Rotary Wing (Helicopter)An unmanned helicopter that can be operated remotely-Advantages of VTOL aircraft
-Higher payloads possible
-Highly maneuverable
-Usually custom-built and designed
-Highly complex to operate
Swiss UAV
Unmanned Multi-Rotary Wing (Multi-copters)Quadcopter UAVs similar to the ones sold by DJI and other hobby UAV aircraft manufacturers-Generally available off-the-shelf
-Established ecosystem of autopilot and ground control software
-Easy to operate
-Low payload capacity
-Susceptible to high winds due to low weight
-Poor range and endurance

Unmanned Air Traffic Management (UTM)

While a single payload-carrying UAV flying in unrestricted and uncontrolled airspace on a test site is a relatively well-controlled and predictable operation, having multiple payload-carrying UAVs flying in shared airspace introduces a whole new level of complexity that requires some form of unmanned traffic management. 

In the United States, the FAA, NASA, other federal partner agencies, and the industry are currently developing concepts of operation, data exchange requirements, and a supporting framework to enable multiple Beyond Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS) UAV operations at low altitudes (under 400 feet above ground level) in airspace where FAA air traffic services are not provided.

According to the FAA, Unmanned Aircraft System Traffic Management (UTM) is a “traffic management” ecosystem for uncontrolled operations that is separate from, but complementary to, the FAA’s Air Traffic Management (ATM) system. 

A critical focus of UTM is on enabling air traffic controllers to continue managing manned aircraft operations while also integrating unmanned aircraft into the national airspace without having to manage them directly as well. This is done through a complementary air traffic management system that enforces airspace operations requirements for unmanned aircraft pilots that support safe visual and Beyond Visual Line of Sight drone flights in low altitude. 

What does the future look like for UAV logistics? 

Urban and Last Mile Delivery

The explosion in e-commerce has put pressure on logistics companies to deliver shipments faster—and while cost efficiencies can be realized in shipping and warehouse logistics, the last mile remains the most expensive part of a delivery chain. Drones have the capability to reduce the cost of last mile delivery through some form of automation and BVLOS operations. Urban environments are also increasingly dense, making it difficult for carriers to navigate or park on increasingly congested streets to make deliveries. Drones might be the solution to bypassing street congestion. 

Here’s how that might look: according to DHL, shipments that arrive from outside the city limits could be sorted at existing facilities (hubs, warehouses, cross-docking sites), and shipments meeting certain criteria separated automatically. In addition to size, weight, and time criticalness, these criteria could also include dynamic metrics (e.g. current road conditions, air pollution, and network load). Each UAV could autonomously pick up assigned shipment(s) from a conveyor belt and take off.

An urban-first and last mile focused use case is likely to be the most tangible and possibly commercially lucrative. However, it is also the use case that is most fraught with regulatory barriers due to safety and privacy concerns, although recent developments in unmanned traffic management may ease these barriers. 

Rural Delivery

UAV deliveries in rural areas that have poor infrastructure and/or geographic isolation may be a much more approachable use case due to lower density and less crowded airspace. However, rural logistics are more costly to companies because less packages are driven longer distances compared to urban delivery routes and may also need non-standard transportation options (e.g. delivering to an island or mountainous settings). 

Rural UAV deliveries are most lucrative for medical emergency operations and medical supply deliveries. For example, Matternet provides cold storage medical delivery (such as blood for emergency transfusions) in places such as Malawi, which have areas difficult to access by road. 

Some final thoughts

Drone technology doesn’t currently have the range to handle all logistics needs for a company, but this technology is maturing quickly, with many manufacturers working on designs to improve these limitations. Because there is so much research and development involved, the technology also remains high cost for now. 

Current regulatory restrictions mandate that a UAV must be in visual contact of its pilot in order to operate. While these measures have been developed with an eye toward protecting people on the ground and aircraft in flight, new technology is making it possible for UAVs to safely fly Beyond the Visual Line of Sight (BVLOS). 

A critical component of any use of UAVs in logistics is Detect-and-Avoid technology, which is an important part of the overall solution to de-risk a payload delivery, minimize near mid-air collisions, and improve the reliability of UAS operations. To find out more about how Iris Automation’s Detect-and-Avoid system, Casia, is helping to revolutionize the future of UAVs in logistics, check out https://www.irisonboard.com/casia/.