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The future of drones: is the sky the limit?

A drone hovers above Rio de Janiero at sunset.

A few years ago, only a small number of hobbyists were buzzing the sky with their unmanned aerial vehicles. Now drones, as they're more commonly called, are gaining much greater interest, especially in their application to the business world. By 2020, the combined number of commercial and hobbyist drones is expected to rise from today's 2.5 million to 7 million.1

Currently, 60 percent of commercial drone usage is for communications and media -- think filmmaking, advertising, and photography.2 But with the FAA's change in regulations this year, the process for legally operating a drone for commercial purposes has been streamlined. And an array of companies and industries are looking at ways they can use drones to operate more efficiently and serve their customers.

Testing in industries from insurance to retail

Insurance company USAA sees drones as a faster way to respond to claims after a natural disaster. When a monumental hailstorm hit the company's hometown of San Antonio in April, they used it as an opportunity to test their unmanned aircraft.

After flying a drone over homes in an affected neighborhood, Kristina Tomasetti, USAA's director of innovation strategy, concluded, "Using drones allows us to do [the inspection] quicker, saving time and [the] expense of sending someone up on the roof."3

Retail giant Walmart has also been testing drones as a way to handle inventory in their massive distribution centers. The company operates 190 warehouses in the U.S. and can move millions of items through them each week.

According to Shekar Natarajan, Walmart's vice president of last mile and emerging science, the drones could help catalog in as little as a day what now takes employees about a month.4

Making urgent deliveries in hard-to-reach locations

While the FAA's rules have relaxed a bit, consumer drone delivery to homes won't be happening just yet. But UPS®, the world's largest package delivery company, is already exploring innovative ways to use the technology now and in the future.

"Our focus is on real-world applications that benefit our customers," said Mark Wallace, UPS senior vice president of global engineering and sustainability. "We think drones offer a great solution to deliver to hard-to-reach locations in urgent situations where other modes of transportation are not readily available."

To that end, UPS has been working with CyPhy Works, a drone maker that manufactures an extremely durable battery-powered drone with night vision and secure communications that cannot be intercepted or disrupted. In September, the two companies staged a successful mock delivery of urgently needed asthma medicine from Beverly, Massachusetts, to a child staying at a camp on Children's Island three miles off the coast.

"Drone technology used in this way can save lives and deliver products and services to places that are difficult to reach by traditional transit infrastructures," noted Helen Greiner, CyPhy's founder and chief technology officer. This type of urgent delivery is already seen favorably by the public. A UPS study conducted by Clarus research found that 74 percent of Americans favor drone deliveries to remote areas only reachable via water.

Bringing humanitarian relief in times of crisis

In that same UPS/Clarus study, 62 percent of Americans said they favor using drones to deliver medical supplies to places that are difficult to reach during disasters. This type of humanitarian aid by drone is another area that UPS is invested in.

"Drone technology has the potential to expedite the movement of critical medical supplies across difficult-to-access geographies while at the same time providing pictures of the situation on the ground beneath the drone's flight path," explained UPS's Wallace. "This improved situational awareness allows for proper resource allocation and mission prioritization, which are critical in times of disaster."

Disaster responders like GlobalMedic have already used drones in Nepal to assess earthquake damage, map damaged roads and buildings and search for survivors. In the future, the hovering vehicles could serve as temporary cell phone towers to keep the lines of communication open between relief workers and the affected populations.

UPS recently teamed with Gavi, the Vaccine Alliance, and Zipline, a robotics company and drone manufacturer, in a unique long-term partnership to deliver blood and other lifesaving medical supplies by drone to remote regions of Rwanda in central-east Africa. The country has faced a continuing healthcare crisis — an extremely high number of women are dying in childbirth due to a lack of available blood supplies to combat postpartum hemorrhaging. But quickly reaching these women in their rural villages, especially during the rainy season, has been next to impossible.

Since the first drones were deployed in October, the program has averaged eight blood deliveries a day, reaching five rural hospitals. When fully implemented, the flights will be able to reach two-thirds of Rwanda's population and make more than 50 deliveries per day.

Where will drones go from here?

While individuals, governments and businesses are exploring the many ways drones can be put to use, there's no telling exactly what the future will hold. In the U.S., the FAA has created a Drone Advisory Committee to shape how that future will be regulated. Comprised of 35 leaders from businesses, associations, municipal, and academic ventures, the committee will, "identify and propose actions on how best to facilitate the resolution of issues affecting the efficiency and safety of integrating UAS [unmanned aircraft systems] into the NAS [national airspace system]."5

One member of the committee is Capt. Houston Mills, UPS Airlines' director of safety. "Drones are a great example of how we can leverage technology to make lives better, whether through humanitarian aid, commercial delivery, or enhancing people's jobs," said Mills.

He continued, "The proliferation and pace of drone advancement will be dictated by public expectations about safety, security, privacy and what they will be willing to accept in terms of disruption. The key will be achieving a healthy balance that manages the airspace for everyone's benefit."

1 Miller, Patrick C., UAS Magazine, "FAA Releases UAS Data on Sightings, 2020 Forecast" (March 2016)

2 Thibault, Guillaume and Aude, Georges, Harvard Business Review, "Companies Are Turning Drones into a Competitive Advantage" (June 2016)

3 Moritz, Marilyn, KSAT.com, "USAA Tests Drones After Hailstorm" (April 2016)

4 Abrams, Rachel, The New York Times, "Walmart Looks to Drones to Speed Distribution" (June 2016)

5 Radio Technical Commission for Aeronautics, RTCA.org.

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