Earlier this month, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced that it had granted package delivery company UPS the ability to operate limited drone delivery services across the U.S. As part of a pilot program, the company has already made 1,110 medical supply deliveries to a North Carolina hospital. With the FAA’s approval, UPS plans to expand this service to more than 20 hospitals over the next two years.
While the drones fly fully autonomously, the routes are preprogrammed and monitored by a human pilot. However, unlike Wing, the first drone company to receive government approval, there is no cap on how many pilots UPS may use at once, allowing for unlimited drone flights.
According to Elaine L. Chao, the U.S. secretary of transportation, “This is a big step forward in safely integrating unmanned aircraft systems into our airspace.” However, as CNN’s Matt McFarland put it, “Significant barriers remain before UPS can deliver packages to your home—or make drone deliveries a meaningful business.”
But with the FAA currently processing six additional applications to operate drone delivery services, we can expect this space to heat up in the months ahead particularly as the U.S. is lagging other countries in drone adoption. For example, Wing is already making deliveries in Australian suburbs, and Zipline, another drone company, has made more than 20,000 drone deliveries of medical supplies in Rwanda and Ghana.
As unmanned aircraft flights become more commonplace, there will also be more data available from these drones that can be mined for actionable insights. The APEX of Innovation has already covered how scientists are making use of drone data in their fight against climate change, and industries like agriculture, insurance, and law enforcement also have numerous use cases for this information.
Signaling that there is still ground to cover, MIT Technology Review’s Charlotte Jee believes, “We remain a long way away from a world where you can pull out your smartphone and order a package to be delivered by drone.” This may be true, but the days when organizations can analyze drone data to obtain new insights and drive improvements are already here—and increased activity in the drone industry will only bring greater intelligence.