Last Mile Drone Delivery: Testing the Limits of Commercial Operations

Last Mile Drone DeliveryTwo months ago, in early April, a group of dedicated pilots gathered on a vacant college campus to test the boundaries of last mile drone delivery, operating under current Part 107 rules.  Flying hundreds of flights over three days, the pilots worked to test every aspect of commercial package delivery by drone: operational capacities, airspace deconfliction, operator safety, processes, policies, and training, for flights both in daylight and at night.  Here’s what they found.

DroneUp is one of the most successful service providers in the world, offering a vetted, licensed and trained force of pilots across the country.  That made DroneUp a logical partner for  Virginia’s Center for Innovative Technology (CIT) and UPS when they set out to determine – quickly –  how unmanned aerial systems could assist with critical delivery during times of crisis, working under the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) current Part 107 regulations.

last mile drone deliveryDroneUp pilots and other test participants conducted exercises from April 6 through April 9, 2020, on the vacant campus of St. Paul’s College, in Lawrenceville, Virginia. Tom Walker, DroneUp’s CEO, said, “DroneUp’s drone delivery exercise was aimed at learning what is possible to do safely and effectively today while gathering data to overcome seemingly impossible obstacles in the near future.”  The result of the testing was a more than 50 page report on every detail of the delivery process.  The report is available here.  Of all of the report findings, this may be the most critical: last mile drone delivery is a safe, practical, and workable solution – right now.

In a pandemic, drone delivery is already showing value.  “The delivery testing and outcomes prove that drones can be used to safely deliver critical items to a quarantine area. Experienced drone pilots could be quickly dispatched to hot zones to provide real assistance in pandemic response,” said Joe Fuller, DroneUp’s CIO.

Screen Shot 2020 06 03 at 1.46.15 PMThe entire report is worth a read: the level of detail is impressive. From the aircraft and camera (the DroneUp team used DJI Inspire aircraft) to flight data analysis, the tests included aspects of last mile drone delivery including training, scheduling operations, payload mechanisms, and communications.  By using a deserted college campus to represent a city environment, the team had the opportunity to test aspects of drone delivery that have been difficult to perform in the U.S. before.

“This exercise proved that Part 107 pilots using commercially available drones could successfully and repeatedly deliver 1.275 pound payload packages to 10 foot diameter targets, on 1500 foot round trips under FAA Part 107 rules,” says the report.

That conclusion may be very significant for drone delivery, both during the current crisis and beyond.  DRONELIFE spoke to DroneUp CEO Tom Walker in April, after the tests had been conducted.  “We did hundreds, if not thousands of flights: it was an exhaustive exercise,” says Walker.  “Every level of the government needs to know what was possible for drone delivery – and we decided to try and get that data.”

“Now we can answer those questions.  We took a 55-acre college campus, we made it a town, and by the end of day two we were doing deliveries every 3 minutes,” said Walker.  “It works.”

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Miriam McNabb is the Editor-in-Chief of DRONELIFE and CEO of JobForDrones, a professional drone services marketplace, and a fascinated observer of the emerging drone industry and the regulatory environment for drones. Miriam has penned over 3,000 articles focused on the commercial drone space and is an international speaker and recognized figure in the industry.  Miriam has a degree from the University of Chicago and over 20 years of experience in high tech sales and marketing for new technologies.
For drone industry consulting or writing, Email Miriam.

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