Should Drones Be Part of Coloradans’ Near-ish Term Logistics Strategy?

If you didn’t buy a drone for your little boy or girl already, then you have probably missed the toy fad. But that’s OK, because the next phase of drone technology is already in high swing: the consumer applications wave is ebbing; long live far more impactful, life-, and business-changing applications. Welcome to the autonomous swarm.

Drone Technology in April, 2018: Where we are now

One of the largest hurdles to widespread, commercial applications of drones has been the need for drones to be controlled by human operators. It doesn’t mean too much to Amazon if they can use drones to deliver packages to customers, if the drone will still require human operators. Amazon and Walmart have both invested heavily in drone research, nonetheless. They saw the drone swarm on the horizon long ago.

But now, the swarm is close enough for everyone to taste. Navigation, sensors, and AI have developed significantly in the last two years, enough to warrant a new Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) initiative on April 1, 2018. The initiative is called, “OFFensive Swarm-Enabled Tactics (OFFSET).” A slew of businesses that have been developing the software and mechanics to support autonomous behavior are already applying, eager to show the US Department of Defense (DoD) exactly what their latest models can handle.

Reports are increasingly impressive, or scary, depending on where you are on the optimist/pessimist spectrum. Unmanned drones are being equipped with facial recognition software; they can interpret hand signals and navigate complex, urban environments, even homes; they can respond to other drones and act in small groups. All the pieces of the swarm puzzle are coming together. International bodies have already delivered strong warnings about the damage drone swarms could wreak if in the wrong hands.

But the commercial applications are equally stunning and even further-reaching. Business Insider reported in 2017 that drone delivery could decimate the cost of delivery. Amazon currently pays approximately $5.75 per package delivered via human-controlled car; autonomous drone deliveries would average $1, or 1/6th the cost.

Autonomous Drone Logistics Timeline: Testing in Denver Airspace

While the technology comes together, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has begun to shift its regulations. The change is gradual, but a lot of progress has been made along a timeline to completion by 2020 or 2021. The latest initiative, organized by the Low Altitude Authorization and Notification Capability (LAANC) to begin in Denver on May 28, 2018, will allow unmanned aircraft within select FAA-controlled inbound and outbound airspaces, including:

  • Colorado Plains Regional Airport (AKO), Akron, CO
  • San Luis Valley Regional Airport (ALS), Alamosa, CO
  • Cortez Municipal Airport (CEZ), Cortez, CO
  • Durango–La Plata County Airport (DRO), Durango, CO
  • Gunnison–Crested Butte Regional Airport (GUC), Gunnison, CO
  • Yampa Valley Airport (HDN), Hayden, CO
  • Montrose Regional Airport (MTJ), Montrose, CO
  • Garfield County Regional Airport (RIL), Rifle, CO
  • Perry Stokes Airport (TAD), Trinidad, CO
  • Goodland Municipal Airport (GLD), Goodland, KS
  • Ainsworth Regional Airport (ANW), Ainsworth, NE
  • Chadron Municipal Airport (CDR), Chadron, NE
  • McCook Ben Nelson Regional Airport (MCK), McCook, NE
  • North Platte Regional Airport (LBF), North Platte, NE
  • Western Nebraska Regional Airport (BFF), Scottsbluff, NE
  • Sidney Municipal Airport/Lloyd W. Carr Field (SNY), Sidney, NE
  • Miller Field (VTN), Valentine, NE
  • Laramie Regional Airport (LAR), Laramie, WY
  • Rawlins Municipal Airport (RWL), Rawlins, WY
  • Northern Colorado Regional Airport (FNL), Loveland, CO
  • Pueblo Memorial Airport (PUB), Pueblo, CO
  • Centennial Airport (APA), Englewood, CO
  • Aspen–Pitkin County Airport (ASE), Aspen, CO
  • Rocky Mountain Metropolitan Airport (BJC), Broomfield, CO
  • Casper–Natrona County International Airport (CPR), Casper, WY
  • Colorado Springs Airport (COS), Colorado Springs, CO
  • Denver International Airport (DEN), Denver, CO

The purpose of the test is to ensure that drones can be operated close to aircraft without compromising safety. If the test is successful, the regulation that bans unmanned aircraft from these spaces will likely be removed, paving the way for drone deployment.

How to plan for the future

There is still plenty of time for Denver businesses to prepare for autonomous drone delivery. The year 2020 is an ideal, if-all-goes-according-to-plan target. The odds of actually achieving the 2020 target are up to anyone’s guess, but while the date is uncertain, there are still a few actions that you can take to prepare.

  • Stay informed regarding drone technology. At the very least, follow the FAA on social media (twitter: @FAANews; facebook: FAA) to see the results of LAANC Denver
  • Identify the degree to which drone delivery will impact your industry
  • Visualize ways to take advantage of significantly reduced shipping cost
  • Prepare to launch new initiatives as soon as regulations allow