Inbound Logistics | January 2024


Combined, Matternet and Ameriight became the country’s rst fully operational, large-scale drone airline. The airline’s initial intent is to focus on healthcare and ecommerce deliveries. The relative light weight of lab

TO NEW HEIGHTS The vagaries of the regulatory landscape have led some drone startups

to concentrate on middle- mile delivery. There’s no need to work out the safety details for landing in someone’s backyard or driveway when larger deliveries to specic cargo drop-off and take-off locations can be accomplished. That’s the focus of San Francisco- based drone startup Volansi, whose electric-hybrid, vertical takeoff and landing (VTOL), xed-wing drone is capable of carrying up to 10 pounds of cargo for as far as 50 miles. Its xed-wing aspect allows Volansi and other drones like it to y for longer periods of time, while the vertical takeoff component allows drones to be more nimble and take off from a much wider swath of spaces without needing infrastructure like a runway. In November 2023, San Francisco- based Elroy Air ew its autonomous hybrid eVTOL cargo aircraft known as the Chaparral for the rst time. It took off vertically from the company’s ight test operations center and successfully landed without incident after a 57-second hover ight.

The Matternet M2 drone can deliver small packages weighing up to about five pounds.

samples and pharmaceuticals bolsters the healthcare focus. Similar to most drones, a Matternet M2 can carry one package with a maximum weight of 2.2 kilograms or just under ve pounds. That isn’t the whole story, however. “Weight itself was not a key factor in targeting our initial customers,” says Jim O’Sullivan, vice president, regulatory and special projects for Matternet. “We chose to initially focus on hospitals, laboratories, and pharmacies because they rely on ground transport, which can be slow and unreliable. Matternet’s goal is to make critical goods and services accessible to all.” Certain products do mesh well with last-mile drone delivery. Flippo says she was surprised when Winsupply, a U.S. construction materials distributor, approached them. “At rst, I said ‘We can’t deliver a hot water heater by drone. This isn’t a good choice,’” she says. But after learning that construction sites can shut down over small missing items, the idea made sense. “We can certainly deliver a water faucet and do it quickly so a project’s entire timeline isn’t disrupted,” Flippo says. ECOMMERCE GETS AIRBORNE Ecommerce companies and products that are best suited for drone delivery are those that enable ultra-fast delivery of single packages such as food, lightweight consumer goods, and medical prescriptions. Compared to utilizing cars or vans, drone delivery dramatically lowers carbon dioxide emissions. Integrating drone delivery into an ecommerce setting can take many forms. It can be as simple as hiring an outside drone service provider to operate the drone delivery network and establish a handoff process. “We piggyback off of the buy-online-pickup-in-store model that

already exists in many retail settings,” says Flippo. For instance, shoppers order an item online at Target with plans to pick it up in one hour and employees bring it to the front of the store. “Essentially, we use that same process except our pilots grab the item and put it on the drone for last-mile delivery,” says Flippo. “To employees, it just looks like any other order.” An ecommerce provider could also bring a drone delivery system in-house and tightly integrate into its workow. The future will likely see drones sitting on the roofs of stores waiting to launch. It’s conceivable, too, that robots could collect the packages that need to be delivered and bring them to the nearest drone. Dispatching drone deliveries from a warehouse setting, by contrast, requires a number of landing/takeoff sites set up outside the facility, along with battery

charging facilities and drone storage. “Key challenges to implementing

drone delivery for ecommerce

include addressing noise issues at the local level as well as establishing scalable methods for sharing airspace with crewed aircraft,” explains O’Sullivan. “Some municipalities have regulations limiting the times and places a drone may land or take off.”

Drone Express provides last-mile drone deliveries for companies including Kroger, Winsupply, and Papa Johns Pizza.

178 Inbound Logistics • January 2024

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