Agriculture, ecommerce, health care, and countless other industries have worlds to gain from drone innovation—if regulatory measures don't get in the way.
Flying Forward: The Future of the Drone Industry
“My visions of the future are always pretty much standard issue. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer, and there are flying cars,” American filmmaker Joss Whedon once quipped. He is no prophet: despite disruptions, global poverty is actually in decline, because wealth is not a fixed pie, and flying cars are nowhere to be seen. But while our commutes may still be earthbound, aerial technology is quietly transforming the way humanity transports goods. Some claim the billion-dollar drone delivery industry will increase 158 percent in value by 2027 and see 23.5 percent compounded growth over the next five years. Already, sectors such as ecommerce shipping, agriculture, logistics, construction, and health care have ambitions to use drones or are currently using drones in their operations.
The industry that has been most intertwined with drone delivery is ecommerce shipping. Companies such as Amazon and UPS have been open about their plans to conduct deliveries with drones for years. Even Walmart has dabbled in drone delivery. Never mind same-day shipping; the days of same-hour shipping could become a reality with packages being delivered by drones to your doorstep. This would also help decongest roads by eliminating the cars and trucks used in shipping ecommerce goods.
Similarly, drone delivery can greatly improve the logistics sector and its operations. In a time when the global supply chain and distribution network are still frazzled by COVID-19 and the war in Ukraine, drone deliveries are providing a much-needed crutch in transporting goods more quickly than by road. Consultant John Murnane at McKinsey & Company believes that drones will be prevalent in many neighborhoods: “I think you will see drones . . . within residential-delivery networks, a truck pulls up with ten drones that go out and deliver to each of the locations, just to get scale in the economics of delivery.”
Although most media coverage regarding drone delivery deals with ecommerce shipping and logistics, perhaps the most exciting advances are taking place in the health care sector. In medical emergencies or natural disasters, where timing is crucial, drones can deliver the needed supplies quickly. Companies such as Zipline have put this concept into practice already. Zipline uses autonomous aerial vehicles to deliver medical supplies to remote and hard-to-reach areas in Africa, the United States, and other countries. “With Zipline, we are sure that in 15 to 20 minutes we are going to get what we need and are sure that the patient will be safe,” said one doctor who uses Zipline deliveries to save her patients. The company claims its drones have helped to reduce in-hospital maternal mortality rates by 88 percent in Rwanda.
The agricultural sector can also make use of drones. Drones can fly over fields, monitor and gather data on crops and soil, report this data back to farmers, and deliver necessary fertilizers and chemicals to plants. This could potentially increase crop yields and farm productivity. The drone company Aerobotics is just one pioneer applying drones to agriculture. Its services include helping South African farmers to detect areas of nutrient-deficient soil and identify infested trees in their orchards. With a growing global population, drones could assist farmers in meeting the demand for more food.
Drone delivery can also benefit the construction sector. Before construction begins, construction crews could use drones to survey a building site and determine if it’s suitable for development or if alternate sites would be better suited for a project. While construction is ongoing, construction workers could use drones to evaluate safety, gauge progress on a project, and inspect problems. As drones’ ability to lift heavier payloads increases with better technology, it may one day be common to see drones moving materials throughout a construction site. Construction crews have already used the assistance of drone companies such as TraceAir.
As drone technology improves, drones will be able to interpret data better and lift heavier loads, which may further boost agricultural yields and shorten construction times. While drone delivery can greatly improve our lives, laws and regulations are inhibiting most drone deliveries from taking place. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has implemented many regulations that obstruct the true potential of drone deliveries. Regulations such as limits to flying at night, barriers to drones weighing over 55 pounds, and barring delivery drones from flying “over people and over moving vehicles” all need to be struck down or significantly altered to make drone delivery a practical option.
From farms and hospitals to construction sites and your doorstep, drone delivery may one day be felt in every area of society. We may still be waiting on flying cars, but the next best thing is right around the corner.