Is the US Grounded in the Race to Develop Drone Delivery?

Amazon’s widely publicized program to develop a drone delivery service might give the impression that the online giant is spurring the technology’s advance in the US.

The reality is very different, says Dr. Mary (Missy) Cummings, Associate Professor, Mechanical Engineering & Materials Science, Duke University. Dr. Cummings will give a talk on the commercial potential of drones at MIT CTL’s Annual Partner Meeting, March 25th, 2015, on the MIT campus.

For a number of reasons other countries are leading this particular race. By comparison, the US has barely moved out of the blocks as regards practical commercial applications of the technology, believes Cummings.

“We tend to get myopic in this country about what’s going on in the rest of the world,” she says, and drone technology offers a good example.

The US Federal Aviation Authority (FAA) is “moving towards more commercial applications, but these are small steps and are not scalable.”  Some companies in the US have been granted permission to operate unmanned aerial vehicles in limited circumstances. New regulations are in the works, but are not expected to emerge until 2017, says Cummings.

Meanwhile, other countries are actively supporting the growth of commercial drones. Australia is one of the leaders, and it is notable that Amazon has carried out much of its initial development work in the United Kingdom. France is using drones in its national postal system, points out Cummings. Canada has a more drone-friendly regulatory framework than its neighbor to the south.

She believes that the FAA is so heavily committed to piloted aircraft that drone technology “is not on their radar.” Companies that want to test aerial drones in the United States have to provide proprietary data if they use designated test sites, and this can be a deterrent.

In addition, these vehicles are generally perceived as a threat to privacy, and are vulnerable to vandalism. The high-profile use of drones by the military has reinforced worries about the security dangers posed by aerial vehicles if they fall into the wrong hands. “But if we can’t employ them on a larger scale it is hard to get positive media around drones and to change perceptions,” Cummings says.

There are some technology problems to overcome, but these are solvable, she maintains. Researchers at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are exploring ways to make the vehicles more robust in severe weather conditions, for example. At Duke, Cummings is researching a multi-layered approach to air traffic control that could be used to manage the movement of drones. “Rather than one person controlling a dozen planes or a single lane, a person could oversee hundreds of drones and intervene when there are problems,” she explains.

In a supply chain context, drones could be used to deliver packages over the last mile, an application that Amazon is developing. But vehicles can be designed to carry heavier payloads, and this is already being done in Afghanistan. “It’s simply a case of developing the business model,” says Cummings.

The MIT CTL partner day on March 25, 2015, follows MIT CTL’s annual conference Crossroads 2015 which takes place on March 24. Exchange partners can make the most of their time at MIT by attending both events. For more information contact Nancy Martin at: NLMartin@mit.edu

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