It has been a great year for drones. In the final week of 2020, the Federal Aviation Association finalized regulations that got the ball rolling for widespread commercial drone use, approving flights beyond the operator’s line of sight just a month later.
With drones now very much in the mainstream, they’ve awakened sleeping corporate giants like Amazon and Walmart, which have partnered with drone manufacturers around the world. Investors are in on the drone craze too, providing funding to a wide range of innovators in the space, and for good reason – the market for drone delivery has an expected compound annual growth rate north of 50% from 2021 through 2026.
All of that hubbub has inspired plenty of pilot projects. Like it or not, drones are entering your airspace across the United States, and they’re delivering a wide range of merchandise. Here are five of the most fascinating drone drop-offs of 2021 thus far:
5. COVID-19 vaccines
California-based drone manufacturer Zipline made headlines earlier this year when it facilitated the delivery of pharmaceutical supplies, including COVID-19 vaccines, to countries like Ghana, Rwanda and India.
In Rwanda, deliveries of blood ordered via WhatsApp arrived within half an hour; in Ghana, Zipline’s drones cover 12 million people, more than a third of the country’s population; and in India, while drone tests are in their infancy, Zipline has lined up a number of partnerships with Indian cities that could eventually allow it to reach the country’s billion-plus citizens.
Drone-enabled pharmaceutical deliveries are still a long way away from becoming standard medical procedure. But for an industry that aims to minimize wait times and maximize coverage, drones sure do make a lot of sense. They’ve already helped save thousands of lives all over the world, and we’re just witnessing the tip of the iceberg.
4. Girl Scout Cookies
Some Virginia Girl Scouts got one heck of an upgrade last spring, when Google’s drone-delivering cousin Wing paid a visit to their hometown of Christiansburg as part of the FAA’s BEYOND program.
“Not only are we delivering cookies via drone, we’re working with the local Scouts to show them how drone delivery works and hopefully inspire some to pursue a STEM career,” said a Wing spokesperson. “In return, they’re teaching us a lot about how to sell cookies.”
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Christiansburg has served as a sort of petri dish for Wing’s drone ventures since 2019. In fact, the first Wing drone to make deliveries in Christiansburg was scooped up by the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum as an aviatory artifact, but the company has shown that drones can be just as helpful to Girl Scouts as they can be to aerospace professionals.
The citizens of Christiansburg certainly aren’t any worse off, as they were able to enjoy a month of Tagalongs, Samoas and, of course, Thin Mints delivered right to their doors.
3. A beer – and a pair of scissors
This one seems like an odd pairing at first glance. But drone operator DroneUp and digital infrastructure service Airspace Link teamed up in July to deliver a cold lager and a pair of scissors to the mayor of Ontario, California, for the grand opening of a community center.
The delivery was a part of the companies’ demonstration at the Tech on Tap event on July 9, and they didn’t just deliver to the mayor. All day long, a flurry of drones flew in and out of the freshly opened New Haven Marketplace like a colony of worker bees, distributing craft beers all over Ontario alongside the smart city’s fleets of e-scooters and robot cars.
Tech on Tap is just one of many exciting innovations for Airspace Link in 2021. Up next is a project in August, when the company will partner with DroneDek to deliver beers to golfers on a course in Michigan. The beverages will be dropped inside custom-built drone “mailboxes” that can then be opened with a smartphone.
2. Arroz con pollo
This chicken can really fly. In June, fast food chain El Pollo Loco began delivering its customers chicken and rice from the sky, partnering with Israel-based drone startup Flytrex to deliver its Mexican cuisine to 10 cities in Southern California.
El Pollo Loco expects to cut delivery expenses by almost 30% with the help of its flying helpers, and it could roll out drones in all of its 500-plus locations should the SoCal test run succeed. The chain also anticipates an efficiency boost, predicting that in the future, one operator will be able to remotely control and monitor up to 20 drone flights at once.
“We wanted to lead the way in the industry and be the first to deliver a memorable experience to our customers in a cost-efficient, fun and reliable fashion in a way no restaurant brand had previously attempted,” said Andy Rebhun, vice president of digital at El Pollo Loco.
Perhaps most significantly, the delivery of arroz con pollo marked the rollout of the very first fast food drone delivery program in the U.S. – and with the early success that El Pollo Loco is seeing, the chain may be setting the tone for bigger players like McDonald’s or Chipotle to give drones a go.
No, not the musical kind. Back in May, Airspace Link and Workhorse Group (NASDAQ: WKHS) partnered on a demonstration in Ohio to facilitate the United States’ first-ever autonomous, multimodal organ transplant transportation, moving a shipment of 3D-printed kidneys via drone.
The kidneys made their journey via a combination of air and ground autonomous systems, traveling 35 miles from the densely populated Columbus area to the rural town of Marysville. And no, the demonstration wasn’t just for show – the kidneys were really used in surgery. Not only were the drones successfully routed through the dense Columbus area, but they kept their cargo surgically sterile.
“Our goal was to show the world that there’s a more advanced and efficient way to move life-saving medical treatments, including organs,” said Lisa Peterson, VP of marketing and business development for Airspace Link, “which requires the most complex logistical coordination between doctors, hospitals, organ recovery organizations, air and ground transportation providers from point A to point B.”
While a drone-enabled organ transplant is fascinating enough on its own, its implications for the future are just as exciting. The delivery served as a sort of litmus test that put the drones’ capabilities on display, and investors are catching on. In July, drone startup Zipline nabbed a $2.75 billion valuation due largely to the success of its “hundreds of thousands” of medically related deliveries. It may not be long before we see millions.
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