The outlook for the small commercial drone industry in the United States has changed significantly over the past year. The Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced its rules for small commercial drones, which go into effect in August 2016, and the US Senate recently passed a 15-month FAA extension (by a vote of 89-4) to also help open up the US sky for drone companies.
Certainly there were several catalysts that pushed the FAA to finalizing its small commercial drone rules, but perhaps the biggest came one year ago today, when Flirtey conducted the first FAA-approved drone delivery in US history.
Flirtey, a startup that began in Australia and has since opened an office in Reno, Nevada, worked with NASA on that mission, delivering medical supplies from the Lonesome Pine Airport to the Remote Area Hospital in Wise County, Virginia, which is one of the most impoverished area’s in the country. The Flirtey drone flew three 3-minute flights and delivered 10 pounds of medicine to the clinic, showing the potential for using drones to deliver goods to remote areas.
Flirtey co-founder and CEO Matt Sweeny refers to that July 17, 2015 event as the commercial drone industry’s “Kitty Hawk” moment – something that once seemed impossible, but is now a reality. “The analogy I like to draw is that Roger Bannister was the first runner to break a 4-minute mile,” Sweeny told Robotics Trends. “That was just a psychological barrier that needed to be overcome. Forty-six days later it was broken again. What we did in Virginia broke a psychological barrier nationwide to opening up the airspace all across the country.”
Since that “Kitty Hawk” moment, Flirtey has made two other historic drone deliveries that resulted in its drone being accepted to the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. Flirtey completed the first FAA-approved urban drone delivery in US history when it delivered a package that included bottled water, emergency food and a first aid kit to a residential area in Hawthorne, Nevada. The delivery drone flew along a half-mile, pre-programmed delivery route and lowered the package at a precise drop-off location. A Flirtey pilot and several observers were on standby as backup to the autonomous system, but were never needed.
Flirtey successfully completed the first ship-to-shore drone delivery in US history, delivering medical supplies from a vessel to an onshore medical camp in Cape May, New Jersey. Watch the ship-to-shore drone delivery below:
Drone Deliveries to Homes
Sweeny said those aforementioned drone deliveries “have been stepping stones to store-to-home drone delivery.” Flirtey is currently in discussions with retailers and food companies about delivery to people’s homes, and Sweeny said these types of drone deliveries will start sooner than most think.
“Within the next 12 months, Flirtey will be delivering packages from stores to people’s homes, commercially,” Sweeny said. “It will start incrementally and build up.”
For store-to-home deliveries to become the norm, however, regulations have to catch up with the technology, Sweeny said. There are two FAA regulations, in particular, that need to be resolved: flying beyond visual line of sight (VLOS) and flying over populated areas. Sweeny said the FAA’s logic behind VLOS is to ensure the drones can give right-of-way to manned aircraft. A visual observer, for example, would see the commercial aircraft and fly the drone out of the way. Eventually, on-board technology will take care of all that. Flirtey has able to get around both those regulations in its deliveries to date.
“In Virginia, we flew in an unpopulated area and had an observer at the take-off location and landing location,” Sweeny said. “When enabling flights beyond visual line of sight and over suburban areas open up, we can fly many miles at a time, opening up a ton of possibilities for delivering food and urgent medicine across cities.”
Flirtey has taken measures to ensure its drones are safe. The drone has built-in safety features that include low battery return to safe location, auto return to home in case of strong winds or low GPS signal or communication loss.
Why Flirtey Won FAA Approval Over Amazon, Google
Flirtey has some stiff competition when it comes to drone delivery in the US. Amazon and Google, both much larger companies that have millions of customers, are exploring the use of drones to deliver customer orders. So why did the FAA entrust Flirtey to conduct the first approved drone deliveries in the US?
“The FAA entrusted us because we’ve been proactive from the outset, building the best team in the industry, the best technology, and the best regulations,” Sweeny said. “We’ve actually gone about things, building the technology and helping with regulations, in a thoughtful way.”
Flirtey’s prior experience also helped. Flirtey already has a commercial drone delivery business in New Zealand, where the drone regulatory picture is much clearer. In July 2015, Flirtey made the first drone parcel delivery in New Zealand by transporting auto parts 2 kilometers. Check out the drone delivery below:
Perhaps the smartest thing Flirtey did, however, was align itself with NASA. Flirtey is being very responsible with its approach to drone delivery, and NASA usually doesn’t participate in anything unless it’s deemed safe. Of course, NASA is working with Flirtey and others on developing a UAS traffic management (UTM) system to track drones in the sky.
NASA and operators from the FAA’s drone testing sites recently flew 22 drones simultaneously to assess rural operations of the UTM system. Operators outside NASA interacted with the UTM by entering flight plans and planned operations from several geographically diverse locations, using various aircraft and software. The UTM research platform checked for conflicts, approved or rejected the flight plans and notified users of constraints.
“We didn’t have any testing problems,” said Parimal Kopardekar, manager of NASA’s Safe Autonomous Systems Operations project and lead of NASA’s UTM efforts. “NASA extensively tested Technical Capability Level one and worked very closely with the FAA test sites, and the UTM research platform performed well. This test would not have been possible without the six FAA test sites – it was a collaborative effort to ensure a successful test.”
The FAA needs to be shown safety is being met with drone delivery, and Flirtey has positioned itself as a leader in this space. “People look back on the date of the Wright brothers first flight and realize that was the catalyst for aerial transportation that changed the world. We’re trying to do the same thing for drone delivery.”