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Delivery Drones Are Coming and the FAA Wants to Be Ready

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems has been selected as the lead test site for an FAA program to test and develop virtual traffic management technology, as the technology moves toward on-demand deliveries.

rendering of a delivery drone in flight
Shutterstock/Tatiana Shepeleva
Drone technology continues to advance, as more research and development is targeted toward traffic control systems for the small, flying devices.

The Nevada Institute for Autonomous Systems (NIAS) was recently awarded the bulk of a roughly $1.8 million earmark by the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to study and test virtual unmanned traffic management technology, known as UTM. The effort is a partnership among NIAS, an FAA-designated drone test site; Switch, maker of data-center technology; and ANRA Technologies, which produces drones. Switch and ANRA will lead demonstrations and testing of unmanned flight systems, while NIAS will explore some of the system and requirements to operate drone fleets safely.

Advances in drone traffic control could not be more timely, say makers of the devices, as companies explore using drones for any number of on-demand deliveries — from groceries to chicken wings.

As one example, Alabama-based Deuce Drone is partnering with grocery chain Rouses Supermarkets and fast-casual restaurant Buffalo Wild Wings is set to conduct delivery trials of groceries and other foods in the fourth quarter of this year.

“The technology will support package weights of less than one pound, up to 100 pounds,” said Rhett Ross, CEO for Deuce Drone, a start-up. “However, we view the sweet spot as likely in the five to 10-pound range. Picture dinner for four, a gallon of milk you forgot on the way home, a ream of paper, printer ink, makeup, prescription drugs, etc."

“We are working closely with both the FAA and local authorities,” Ross added. “We see this service more appropriate for suburban regions versus metropolitan.”

UTM, will play a central role in developing drone applications for Beyond Visual Line Of Sight (BVLOS), said Yariv Bash, co-founder and CEO of Flytrex, also a maker of small drone aircraft.

“This is particularly valuable within the drone delivery sector, which by design relies on traveling far distances,” said Bash.

To fully develop out this delivery sector, the industry will need to establish standardizations and precision throughout the delivery operations, said Bash. Which is where the FAA comes in, establishing and providing the needed certifications.

“These private companies will provide identical ‘maps of the skies’ — UTM — to their clients, as everyone will share the same airspace; and precise, uniform mapping will be crucial toward ensuring aerial safety,” he added.

ANRA, known for its pilot program to make small deliveries in India during the COVID-19 pandemic via food delivery app Swiggy, has said the FAA testing program will allow the company to explore operational issues like data storage, cost estimates and more. 

Skip Descant writes about smart cities, the Internet of Things, transportation and other areas. He spent more than 12 years reporting for daily newspapers in Mississippi, Arkansas, Louisiana and California. He lives in downtown Yreka, Calif.