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The Race for Last Mile Drones

Updated: Aug 13, 2022

Content transferred from: Logistics Viewpoints

One of the most difficult and expensive aspects of the supply chain is last mile and home delivery. However, from a customer experience standpoint, it is also the most memorable and possibly important. Autonomous last mile deliveries are part of the answer to the e-commerce boom that we are experiencing. I have already written about autonomous mobile robots and how they are changing last mile deliveries. Today, I want to look at last mile drones and what the future holds.

The use of last mile drones is still challenging for a variety of reasons including FAA regulations, public perception, and the technology itself. However, more and more companies are exploring the use of last mile drones, hoping to bring down the cost of deliveries while improving customer service. Here are six last mile drones to be on the lookout for, in no particular order.

Wing is a subsidiary of Alphabet, the holding company for Google and Waymo. The company has developed a fleet of last mile drones for small package delivery in the US, Australia, and Finland. Recently, Wing has developed a fleet of new drone prototypes designed to more efficiently deliver packages ranging from small pill bottles to items weighing as much as 7 pounds. The two designs, one that looks more like a small plane used by hobbyists and another with a big belly used for additional cargo space, were recently unveiled in a company blog post. For now, the company is still focusing on its original drone design, the Hummingbird W-B aircraft, which is a hybrid that can take off like a helicopter and fly horizontally like a plane. The two new prototypes are both based on the Hummingbird, which Wing says can carry about 2 pounds and has made hundreds of thousands of deliveries in Dallas suburbs, Virginia, Australia, and Finland. They use many of the same components, such as motors and guidance systems, and follow similar designs.

Amazon’s Jeff Bezos boldly declared nearly nine years ago that in just a few years, last mile drones would be delivering packages across the country to customer’s front doors. While his claim was a few years off, Amazon continues to push its drone research and development. Earlier this year, Amazon announced that Amazon Prime customers in Lockeford, CA, will start receiving package deliveries by drone later this year. This would make Lockeford among the first US locations to enjoy free drone delivery within 30 minutes. Amazon contacted customers in Lockeford to ask them to opt in to drone delivery. Once a customer enrolls, an Amazon employee will visit to make sure their yard has enough clear space to accept drone deliveries. Drone delivery will be free for Prime members, and only Prime members can use the service.

UPS Flight Forward is a wholly owned subsidiary of UPS focused on last mile drones. The company was formally launched in July 2019, and on October 1, 2019, became the first company to receive the Federal Aviation Administration’s full Part 135 Standard certification, allowing the company to operate an unlimited remote-controlled drone delivery network in the United States. In June of 2020, UPS partnered with CVS to use drones to deliver prescriptions to residents of The Villages in Florida, one of the country’s biggest retirement communities. The deliveries came from a CVS store about a half mile away and marked the first paid residential deliveries by UPS’s drone unit Flight Forward. The drones dropped the prescriptions to a central location, where a Flight Forward employee delivered them by golf cart to homes.

Founded in 2011, Matternet offers and end-to-end drones delivery solution around the world that uses its proprietary M2 Drone, Cloud Platform, and Station. The company has partnered with UPS to use its last mile drones for the delivery of medicines and blood from Wake Forest Baptist Health. These drones are designed to carry payloads of up to 2 kilograms (4.4 pounds) and 4 liters over distances of up to 20 kilometers (over 12 miles). Matternet goes beyond just last mile drones however, as its’ proprietary software platform receives requests from customers, creates delivery routes, and monitors, commands, and controls all operating assets of the company. In November 2019, a Matternet M2 drone completed the first commercial medical prescription drone delivery in the US under a Federal Aviation Administration-approved program. The prescriptions were lowered to their destinations via a cable while the drone hovered about 20 feet above each address.

Flytrex is based in the US and focuses on last mile drones for food delivery. Once a customer downloads the app and registers their backyard, they can place orders from a partner network of restaurants. The drones are able to fly 5 miles roundtrip and can reach their destination in about 5 to 10 minutes. Last month, Unilever announced a partnership with Flytrex o make Ice Cream Shop drone deliveries across all of Flytrex’s US locations, including Holly Springs, Fayetteville, and Raeford, NC, as well as Granbury, TX. According to Unilever, drone orders from The Ice Cream Shop will be delivered to front and back yards of local residents with a promised flight time of less than three minutes. Customers can place orders for drone deliveries of ice cream using the Flytrex app. The app will provide customers with real-time updates along the delivery route until the package is lowered safely by wire into their yard.

Zipline has focused its last mile drones on the health and wellness sector. Nearly five years ago, San Francisco based company began using delivery drones for moving medical supplies to health clinics in Rwanda. Since then, Zipline has taken what it learned from that program and has recently partnered with Novant Health to deliver personal protective equipment and medical equipment in North Carolina. Zipline’s drones make 32-mile flights on two routes between Novant Health’s emergency drone fulfillment center in Kannapolis to the company’s medical center in Huntersville, NC to help front line workers. Most recently, Cardinal Health started air delivery of pharmaceutical products and medical supplies via Zipline drone in North Carolina. The Zipline flights make Phoenix-based Magellan Rx Management the only national pharmacy benefits manager delivering prescription medications directly to patients at home using drones.

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