Autonomous drone technology is paving the way for a future where package delivery could be a matter of minutes.

The technology is largely ready for commercial deployment, said Chris Ash, senior vice president of aviation business development at Hillwood, the developer behind master planned community AllianceTexas in Fort Worth.

Ash is part of Hillwood subsidiary Alliance Aviation Services, which engages in flight testing for autonomous drones at the AllianceTexas Mobility Innovation Zone, also known as the MIZ. Alliance Aviation Services also partners with companies to help bring the technology into the commercial space, he said.

The details

The adoption of the technology is not simply a matter of science experiments or reducing operating costs, said Ian Kinne, ​​director of logistics innovation at Hillwood. The global expectation for quick package delivery has increased exponentially and was exacerbated by the pandemic, Kinne said, and the demand will only continue to grow.

“It's a matter of necessity for a lot of these companies to be even viable businesses in the future,” Kinne said.

There are two primary models of autonomous drones, or unmanned aircraft systems, that the MIZ and the industry as a whole work with, according to Kinne. Those are the small UAS model and the electric vertical takeoff and landing model, also called the eVTOL or air taxi model.

The small UAS model focuses on one-off, 3- to 5-pound package deliveries to homes and businesses. The package sizes could increase as the industry advances, and the advent of larger cargo drones similar to eVTOL vehicles could arrive in the near future, Ash said. In contrast to surface vehicles, which will harbor the bulk of package distribution, the cargo eVTOL aircraft will focus on high-priority package delivery with relatively low package counts to commercial storefronts.

“You may also see the eVTOL side take a delivery off an airplane and [put it] onto a cargo drone where it will be delivered to a distribution facility,” he said.

The air taxi model—as the name suggests—aims to transport people efficiently across metropolitan areas. Due to the risks involved, the technology is much further off in development and commercial use, but the large cargo drones could pave the way for its implementation, Ash said.

What's next

The Federal Aviation Administration restricts the size and weight of autonomous drones, Ash said. The industry is still figuring out the safety data surrounding the technology with larger, heavier drones posing a greater risk if malfunctions take them out of the sky, Ash said.

One of the biggest hurdles for the autonomous drone industry is identifying, creating and applying a regulatory framework that safely integrates drone technology into everyday life, Ash said.

“Currently there’s really no regulatory guidance that is going to allow this technology to get out there and fly easily,” he said.

The air traffic control system for autonomous drones might look different than its commercial airspace counterpart, Ash said. He noted Hillwood is working with the FAA to define industry needs. Aviation vehicles never fly below 1,000 feet over populated areas barring takeoff and landing, while package delivery drones stay below 250 feet.

Some of the traditional air traffic protocols don’t apply to the unmanned aircraft systems as the two should never crowd the same airspace, he said. But regulations would need to carve out a protected airspace around airports to mitigate collision risks during landing and takeoffs, Ash said.

As the regulation problem is solved alongside other issues, such as ensuring drones have clear visibility in inclement weather and sufficient battery power, autonomous technology will touch almost every piece of people’s lives in some manner, Ash said.

“Once upon a time we didn’t understand the overnight FedEx package model, we didn’t have an iPhone, and we didn’t have Amazon next-day delivery. This is the next natural evolution,” he said.