It appears the US FAA is seeing the light with regards to the idea of delivering products to consumers via drones.
A recent regulatory approval in the South Eastern United States has finally set a new milestone in the history of drone technology. These new regulations will allow a select few operators to actively compete to be the first to achieve perfect line-of-sight delivery of commodities to customers by drones.
If successful, they may see their delivery radius expand up to 30 miles.
This is still a test in progress and likely has years to go before becoming a reality. However, adopting drone technology to enhance supply chain operations is closer than it’s ever been.
In several European countries, the delivery of many dry goods via drones has been a possibility for roughly two years now. And China has had rural drone deliveries since 2015. In fact, there are a total of 27 countries around the globe that have drone trials or active programs already delivering packages.
Cold delivery drones would be a huge achievement for the industry and a step in the next, most logical direction. Being able to expedite the delivery of everything from life-saving medicines to fresh sandwiches made at your local deli would be absolutely revolutionary.
But, is it possible?
What are the Benefits of Drone Delivery of Cold Storage Products?
Cold storage shipping is already a bit of a challenge for most smaller supply chains. The main issue usually being the fact that the temperature in the reefer container must be kept within a specific range. And if achieving this in a full-sized container can be relatively difficult, doing it with a drone is bound to be twice as hard.
If the drone industry can find a way to keep items outside their ‘danger-zone’ temperature range, the benefits could be quite significant.
Here are a few general benefits that cold transport drones could offer a supply chain...
Quicker delivery of smaller items
A drone can fly very quickly. Some of the fastest on the market can travel at almost 70 mph at low altitudes.
Since they are compact, they could potentially deliver smaller cold package from a facility to a customer within 20 miles in a matter of minutes.
Save money on deliveries
Drones are built to be efficient, using electric-powered engines that consume very little energy to operate. The durability and reduced maintenance costs of drone shipping can help save transportation companies a large amount of money annually.
These battery-operated flying machines produce zero emissions. This is great for our environment as it reduces the carbon footprint and contributes to the global push for greener supply chains.
Perfect for the medical industry
Most critical medications and vaccines must be kept within a specific temperature range to retain potency.
The major hurdle in healthcare is finding a way to reduce the time and resources needed for delivering them. However, the Journal of the Society of Laparoendoscopic Surgeons (JSLS) has covered this more in detail in this comprehensive overview.
Cold transport drones can deliver to remote, hard to access areas
In times of war, environmental or weather-related disasters, a cold transport drone system can fly unobstructed and deliver medical supplies. Likewise, it could even get food out to first responders or patients onsite.
Cold transport drones would be helpful in delivering life-saving vaccines in areas that have an outbreak or epidemic while reducing the potential of exposure to humans.
What are the Challenges to Implementing Cold Storage Delivery with Drones?
While these benefits look great on paper, there are still some challenges that exist with making this concept a reality...
As of October 2019, the Federal Aviation Administration restricts the operation of drones to outlying areas, with flight paths not directly over large civilian populations, and only within a direct line of sight. This means that the operator must be able to visually locate the drone as it flies – which dramatically reduces the range. If drone delivery is going to be practical, these regulations must be revised.
While most of these regulations seem obtuse, they are active due to public safety. Drone technology introduces several potential threats, including in-air malfunctions, loss of signal from the operator, and even possible terrorism threats. Until mitigated, regulations on operations will continue.
Creating Lightweight Cold Storage
With flight comes weight restrictions. While drones are built with lightweight materials, this comes with the reality of weight capacity. Cold product shipping must maintain the desired temperature level at all times. However, this will add weight to the equipment and reduce the amounts of products available to fly.
The concept of cold storage drone operation is enlightening and promising.
However, there are several issues that must be resolved first to ensure this new delivery concept is safe and efficient. Testing over the next few years along with partnerships with global drone manufacturers should narrow this window a bit. All in the hopes of making cold storage drone delivery a practical option sooner than later.
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