Skip to page content

The Air Up There Podcast

Drone Package Delivery

Season 2, Episode 2
Published: Friday, February 12, 2021

Drone package delivery isn't just something cool that could happen in the future — it's happening now! In this episode of The Air Up There, you'll learn how FAA works with businesses, local governments and researchers to ensure drone package delivery happens safely. You'll also hear from representatives at UPS and Wing about ways they've incorporated drone package delivery during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Read the show notes on our blog.

Drone Package Delivery

Drone Package Delivery

Transcript

Dominique Gebru:
You're listening to season two of The Air Up There, a podcast about the wide world of aviation. I'm Dominique Gebru.

Allen Kenitzer:
And I'm Allen Kenitzer. And today, we're talking about the fastest-growing segment of aviation, drones. That might sound futuristic, but drone package delivery is already here. Most of us might not be able to get our groceries delivered to our doorstep by tiny aircraft, but believe it or not, some companies in the U.S. are using drones to deliver prescriptions, library books, and to transport medical lab samples from point A to point B. And in today's episode, we're going to hear from two businesses that are using drones to deliver packages, UPS and Wing.

Dominique Gebru:
That's right, Allen. And it's pretty awesome to see technology being used in this way, especially during the pandemic while we have to maintain a safe physical distance from other people. Drone package delivery is still in a bit of an experimental phase right now and not everyone who flies a drone is eligible to use it for that purpose. So I'm going to give a little bit of background here. As folks might know, the FAA's mission is centered in safety. And, Allen, you said it, drones are the fastest-growing segment in the aviation world, and it's super important that the airspace stay safe with all of those new entrants.

Dominique Gebru:
So the FAA thinks of drone operations in a few different categories. In this episode, we're talking about part 107, certified remote pilots, and part 135. If you're curious about this topic, you can find all the details you need at faa.gov/uas. And we'll also link some information in this week's show notes. Part 107 operations have several restrictions that would apply in a drone package delivery scenario. Most notably, that the drone has to stay within the pilot's visual line of sight the whole time. The interviews we're going to hear in a few minutes are with companies flying under part 135.

Allen Kenitzer:
So how exactly do the rules change when pilots fly under part 135?

Dominique Gebru:
Great question. So, like I said, this is a part of aviation that's changing rapidly, and a lot of the policy development is still happening right now. Part 135 operations are individually certificated by the FAA and the only groups who qualify as of now are those participating in the FAA's BEYOND program. That program is the successor of the UAS Integration Pilot Program or IPP, which listeners can learn a little more about in episode six of this podcast, which is called Drones for Good. So if you're curious about this, you can go back and listen to that episode.

Allen Kenitzer:
I'm guessing that the program's name, BEYOND, has a little something to do with flying beyond visual line of sight.

Dominique Gebru:
Allen, it's like you work at the FAA or something. That's right, one of the major differences between part 107 and part 135 drone operations is that part 135 allows for flight beyond visual line of sight. Meaning, the pilot doesn't have to be able to see the drone while it's in flight.

Allen Kenitzer:
I can imagine that would be really helpful in more complex delivery scenarios. Thanks for all that background information, Dominic. I'm excited to listen to our first interview, which is a conversation between the FAA's Laura Brown and Kevin Wasik, head of business development at UPS Flight Forward. UPS was a participant in IPP and they're staying on to participate in BEYOND. Kevin's going to share how UPS is using drones to solve a real world challenge at a hospital in North Carolina.

Kevin Wasik:
We partnered with Matternet in early 2019, and together, we started servicing WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, North Carolina, by transporting blood specimens from an outpatient clinic to the hospital's central lab. The reason UPS and Matternet joined forces to service the health care industry is that we see tremendous value in increasing the speed of same-day delivery across these hospital networks. Most hospitals today have a decentralized footprint. It's a web of facilities that today are connected by ground couriers. And that's what we did at WakeMed. We are now using a drone to supplement a ground courier. We're increasing the speed of transit, we're increasing efficiencies for the lab, we're reducing turnaround time, and enabling physicians to diagnose patients faster.

Laura Brown:
So, Kevin, one of the benefits of the Integration Pilot Program was when the recent public health emergency occurred. Because companies like UPS were already certified to do deliveries, they could quickly pivot to support the public health emergency response. Can you talk a little bit about what you did in Florida?

Kevin Wasik:
Yes, absolutely. So we actually received word from the FAA that they were interested in evaluating COVID-19 relief efforts. And what we did is we reached out to the world's largest pharmacy, who we had a partnership with and said, "Hey, what can we do?" And we identified a retirement community in Florida called The Villages. It's pretty well-known. It's home to 135,000 seniors. And in partnership with the pharmacy, we set up a drone delivery service. The aircraft is taking off from this pharmacy and is actually flying to a nearby church where it lands. And then the retirement community is adjacent to the church where we use, actually, golf carts today to make the final delivery. What this offers this demographic is an easier, safer, and more convenient way to receive their prescriptions. We're delivering in 30 minutes or less, and it helps keep this high-risk demographic healthy at home.

Laura Brown:
What's the future look like for you? What do you see as the future of medical logistics by drone?

Kevin Wasik:
So we definitely see the demand. We kind of have been in the market offering this service for the past year and a half, and we've been in touch with over 150 hospitals across the country. There's definitely a demand within these hospital systems. However, the industry and the regulations are still taking shape. And there's a number of things we have to accomplish, but maybe the most important would include aircraft with added capability. Give you one example, maybe adding a winch delivery system to our current aircraft. The other capability is being able to detect and avoid non-cooperative air traffic. And arguably, it's the most complex challenge that we're faced with today. And what makes that so important is without the ability to detect and avoid, we can't fly as far. We have to rely on operators on the ground to scan the airspace.

Kevin Wasik:
So, for more complex operations that are longer in distance, this detect and avoid solution is really important. And then finally, the regulations really need to change a bit. And I know that's what the FAA set out to do with the Integration Pilot Program was to really experiment and learn what a safe operating model requires. And that's where UPS and the FAA do work together. As we operate in these very controlled environments, we're feeding our data and experiences back to the FAA so that they can assess and revisit the current regulations.

Allen Kenitzer:
So for anyone out there who still thinks that drones are just toys, I hope that, that interview changes your mind.

Dominique Gebru:
Yeah, it's pretty cool to see drones being used to fill such a practical need. Next, Laura interviews Margaret Nagle, the head of policy and government affairs at Wing. Wing is another company operating under part 135 and they're also participating in the FAA's BEYOND program. Let's hear from Margaret.

Margaret Nagle:
At Wing, we've been working since about 2012 to look at and solve challenges around last mile delivery. So we've built a lightweight aircraft that can deliver small packages directly to customers' homes. When the administration announced the IPP program, we saw that as a great opportunity to continue to bring this technology into communities here in the United States. And we have been working with Virginia Tech since around 2016. That's a relationship that we had, and when the administration announced the IPP, we reached out to the state of Virginia and to Virginia Tech and thought that, that would be a good fit for us to bring package delivery to Christiansburg, Virginia.

Laura Brown:
So how did you engage the community? What do you think worked best in reaching out to people?

Margaret Nagle:
Yeah. So we took a lot of different approaches to reaching out to the community, right? We reached out to members of the state, the city, the local government, and meetings. We showed up at town hall and community meetings and city council meetings. We actually did things like putting a booth in the local shopping mall, where we had a drone and people could come and ask questions of Wing employees. We obviously did things like put out announcements on social media or posted FAQs on our website so that people could come to the website and understand and learn more about the product.

Margaret Nagle:
But we really look to engage sort of all levels of the community. And we tried to do as much of that in-person as we could. Or particularly leading up to the launch where people could interact directly with the technology and have one-on-one conversations with employees from Wing. As we've shifted, particularly into the pandemic world, we've looked at how we can do more of that outreach online, right? And how we can show up to town hall meetings, virtually. How we can answer questions virtually and still be present in the community, even though we may not be able to be there in person quite as much.

Laura Brown:
So did you do anything differently as a result of the feedback that you got?

Margaret Nagle:
We have in various operations. We have done things. One of the examples that I would give in Christiansburg is, during the pandemic, we had a handful of people reach out to us and businesses reach out to us and ask if they could help them deliver goods to their customers during the pandemic when they were having a hard time accessing customers and people weren't able to walk into their stores. We were able to, relatively quickly, bring additional merchant partners onto our platform and allow them to reach customers during the pandemic. In an example in Australia, we received feedback in one of our earlier trials around the sound of our drones. And we spent a number of months working to actually update the propellers on the UAS to lower the pitch and the overall sound of the drone. We really want to hear feedback from the community because we know that this is a new technology. We're learning from the community as we go and we want to hear their feedback. Where we're able to, we want to be able to respond and continue to improve the offering in the communities where we're operating.

Laura Brown:
So I understand you also had a project to deliver books to school kids. Tell us a little bit about that.

Margaret Nagle:
We did. So one of our customers in Christiansburg, Virginia is the librarian of the local public school. And she reached out to us to see if we would be able to deliver library books to school children in Christiansburg. So we work with her to figure out how we could do that. And in fact, we have been delivering library books to the public school children in Christiansburg, Virginia throughout the pandemic. It's been a really wonderful way to help the community keep children engaged in learning throughout the summer, and to be a help in small ways as we can be.

Laura Brown:
So, Margaret, can you share any success stories with us about what you found during the package delivery operations?

Margaret Nagle:
One of my favorite stories is about one of our first customers and one of our best customers in Christiansburg, Virginia, the [Sensmeyers 00:12:24], a wonderful couple in their 80s. And they have just really loved this technology. Particularly during the public health emergency, they have really relied on Wing to be able to get services as they've tried to not go out of the house as much as they would have otherwise. They've used it to order food, they've used it to order convenience items from Walgreens. It's been really great to see how an actual customer in Christiansburg has used the service to their benefit.

Dominique Gebru:
Allen, I'm a big reader and hearing about Wing using drones to deliver library books makes me so happy.

Allen Kenitzer:
Yeah, there are so many real world applications where drone delivery just makes sense. It's an exciting time in the aviation world. And that's our show for today. The Air Up There is a podcast from the Federal Aviation Administration. If you like this episode, be sure to subscribe and share it with someone else. You can find the FAA on social media too. We're at FAA on Facebook, Instagram, and LinkedIn, and on FAANews on Twitter and YouTube.

Dominique Gebru:
Thanks for listening.

This page was originally published at: https://www.faa.gov/podcasts/the_air_up_there/?file=2021-02-12-002.mp3&permalink