Chris Ash believes drone delivery is the way of the future.
“Package delivery via drone, whether it be small scale, medium or large scale, will be as common as e-commerce one day,” Ash said.
Ash, the senior vice president of aviation business development at Alliance Airport, has seen companies like Google’s sister company, Wing, test its drones at the Alliance Flight Test Center.
Fort Worth and North Texas are becoming a test bed for companies that want to make delivery of products by drone a reality. Two drone companies have come to the area recently — Google’s Wing in Little Elm and Frisco and Flytrex in Granbury.
Residents of Frisco and Little Elm can order ice cream from Blue Bell Creameries, prescription pet medications from easyvet and first aid kits from Texas Health Resources through Wing. Residents in Granbury, 30 miles southwest of Fort Worth, can order wings from Chili’s and food from other restaurants.
But obstacles remain for the industry to expand. Limitations in technology and limited guidance by the Federal Aviation Administration means that widespread deliveries across the metroplex may take time to take off.
Barrier for industry
Places such as the Alliance Flight Test Center is a good place to start testing drone technology, Ash said. Companies need a flat landscape to test software and a clear space to run long distances beyond the visual line of sight.
“From a safety perspective, a crawl, walk, run approach to the business (is) smart in thinking about going to places like Little Elm or Granberry, or one of these smaller communities to start small and scale,” Ash said. “But whether it’s Flytrex in Granberry or Wing in Frisco, those will not be the last locations.”
One barrier for rapid expansion of the industry is regulations. The Federal Aviation Administration bans operation beyond the line of sight, meaning pilots have to keep their eyes on the drone at all times.
The administration has given a select number of companies, including Wing, a special authorization to fly beyond line of sight. That allows the company to operate in Frisco and Little Elm. Flytrex also received a waiver through the FAA’s BEYOND program. Yariv Bash, the CEO of Flytrex, said the industry is dependent on regulations.
“It’s a step-by-step progress,” Bash said. “I mean, the drones are being certified as commercial airplanes. So it’s a very rigorous and lengthy process.”
Flytrex is waiting on a regulatory framework to fly drones in denser areas and for longer distances, Bash said. That framework is on the way, he said, and he predicts it will come in about two years. His company has been working with the FAA for almost five years to certify the company’s system.
“We’re nearing the finish line, which will allow us to expand nationally throughout the U.S.,” he said.
In a keynote, former FAA administrator Stephen Dickson said that although several companies are getting special permission to operate out of the line of sight, the operations are inherently limited.
“The operations are not scalable or economically viable in the mid- to long-term under today’s rules,” Dickson said.
Limitations in technology are holding the industry back, too.
Drones operate by batteries or electrical power and can fly only short ranges, Zehao Li, a technology analyst at market research company IDTechEx, said. The drones also have limitations weight – limiting the type and amount of products it can carry, he said.
Both Flytrex and Wing operate on a limited scale. Right now, Flytrex can reach up to a little over a mile with the hope to eventually reach two miles, Bash said. Wing can reach customers in a four-mile radius.
Drones are also dependent on GPS systems for autonomous navigation and not reliable for obstacle avoidance, Li said.
“So if you imagine when the market has taken off, there are probably a lot of drones in the sky,” Li said. “So there will be some problems, probably with the aerial traffic.”
Focusing on backyards
Drone delivery companies are targeting neighborhoods with large amounts of houses, one reason why they chose Little Elm and Frisco, Jacob Demmitt, lead marketing and communications for Wing, said.
There are “a lot of single-family homes with backyards or front yards that are a nice space where you can deliver packages,” Demmitt said. “So that was good from that perspective.”
CEOs like Bash say the decision comes down to user experience. After all, drone companies still have to compete with delivery apps like Uber Eats. Drone delivery at apartments aren’t as convenient for customers, he said.
“You have to exit the building and go to a street corner or climb to the rooftop to get your delivery,” Bash said. “And when it’s a private house, all you have to do is open the back door and pick it up from your backyard.”
Because drones can’t knock on doors like delivery drivers, he said, the apartment market is inaccessible – which is one reason why Bash thinks drone delivery isn’t likely to come to major metropolitan cities.
But for people like Ash at Alliance Airport, companies starting deliveries is just the beginning.
“This is not futuristic,” Ash said. “The future is now. It’s time for us to embrace it. It’s time for us to get educated on it. It’s time for us to encourage regulatory guidance. It’s time for us to encourage new acceptance.”
Seth Bodine is a business and economic development reporter for the Fort Worth Report. Contact him at email@example.com and follow on Twitter at @sbodine120.