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How drones will change our retail experience, our cities and our skies

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The recent acquisition of Whole Foods by Amazon has captured a lot of attention. It’s not just retailers that are keeping an eye on this. With the increasing demand for delivered goods, drone companies are looking at Amazon as a way to introduce drone usage in mainstream retail.

Amazon is set up for success in this market, especially with the development of its Prime Air drone delivery system. In March, Amazon completed its first public demo of drone deliveries, transporting sunscreen to attendees at an Amazon-hosted conference in California.

Most recently, we heard about the establishment of a new research and development facility near Paris. Around a dozen software engineers and developers are working there to ensure that flying delivery vehicles can avoid colliding with buildings, trees, other drones, and birds.

To understand the impact of drones on retail services, I spoke to Yariv Bash, co-founder and CEO of full-service drone delivery logistics company Flytrex.

See also: Smart cities will soon buzz with (hackable) drones

Last year, Flytrex successfully launched a drone delivery service with the Ukranian postal service to deliver goods weighing up to 1kg (2.2 pounds) over a distance of 23km (14.3 miles). While Flytex focuses on enterprise customers who not only want to purchase a fleet of drones, but also the accompanying control and monitoring systems, their drones are known for their convenience. They can be taken out of the box, charged, connected to an accompanying app, and used.

Bash pointed out that over 25 million parcels are transported globally every day, with most weighing less than 2 pounds—ideally suited for drone delivery.

“By acquiring Whole Foods, Amazon gets access to prime real estate for drone stations in every major city,” Bash said. “By optimizing Whole Foods’ warehouses with Amazon’s Kiva robots, additional space can be created to store drones and stock Amazon’s best-selling products. This would allow Amazon products to be delivered locally and on-demand by drones from Whole Foods stores.”

Changing the transit experience

In August of last year, the Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) issued new regulations for commercial drones. According to the new rules, operators cannot fly drones higher than 400 feet, or at night. The drones must also weigh less than 55 pounds and constantly remain in the sight of a human operator—prohibiting any kind of long-distance drone use, including basic delivery. Additionally, people cannot operate drones from a moving vehicle unless in a “sparsely populated area.”

As a result, we are likely to see drones being used as part of a logistics package to complement road vehicles, rather than supplant them.

“The drone will be a key component of the supply chain from warehouse to the customer, with increased benefits as goods warehouses become more automated,” Bash said. “They’re also highly cost-effective as a drone costs significantly less than a delivery truck, operates using batteries instead of fuel, and requires much cheaper maintenance.”

One of the least-reported benefits of drones is their low carbon footprint. According to Bash, drones can “reduce road congestion in crowded cities and decrease air pollution.” They could potentially replace small-scale single-item deliveries, including food deliveries.

Drones will also transform the customer experience. While the concept of a drone landing on our doorstep is still distant, we are likely to see scheduled drone deliveries to designated drop-off areas, such as rooftops in residential areas.

“One of the great advantages of drones in delivering items is the scale of what they can deliver,” Bash said. “Imagine a warehouse full of 200,000 of the most popular items sold in your area. It could include everything from groceries to books and pharmaceuticals and be delivered to shoppers in just 10-15 minutes.”

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How will drones change our skies?

Without a doubt, drones will change our skies; however, one of the biggest challenges to their success will be the struggle to regulate airspace to accommodate different vehicles.

NASA, along with various partners, recently completed testing of live, remotely operated drones at six sites across the country. According to Parimal Kopardekar, senior technologist for NASA’s air transportation system research and principal investigator for UTM, a traffic management system is crucial “to ensure the safety of the nation’s manned and unmanned airspace.” The operational scenarios simulated various use cases including package deliveries, farmland surveys, search and rescue operations, railway inspections, and video surveillance operations.

Initial test results indicated that when flying well beyond the pilot’s line of sight, operators could lose sync with their aircraft, highlighting the need to develop better ways to strengthen these links. Establishing a standard for these communications links will be a critical element for the success of the industry as a whole.

Major industry players like Amazon are relying on the FAA to address these challenges; the FAA’s efforts are supported by technological advancements like spatial recognition and awareness of other drones, airplanes, and man-made structures like tall buildings and bridges. Drones also need to be adaptable to changing weather and flight paths, and able to respond to communication from the ground.

Flytrex signed a shipping agreement with American Duty Free, the largest duty-free company in the United States. American Duty Free’s partnership with a pharmaceutical company demonstrates its interest in assisting its fleet of drug makers to supply medication in hard-to-access areas of developing countries.

While Bash acknowledges that it’s uncertain how long we will have to wait until drone deliveries become commonplace, he is certain of its inevitability. Drone-delivered kale might be a distant prospect, but it is on the horizon.

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