A Brief Chronicle on the Game of Commercial Drones

Despite the absence of an official permission from the FAA to fly commercial drones, the number of big corporations who see the big potential in their uses is steadily on the rise.

We take a brief look at how things are heating up so far in the so-called game of drones for commercial purposes, as far as two main uses of drones are concerned: using drones for delivering goods and drones for providing internet.

Using Drones for Delivering Goods

When bigtime online retailer Amazon revealed its Octocopter” drones for its envisioned delivery-by-drones called the Amazon ‘Prime Air’ that would fly packages directly to customers 30 minutes after they hit the ‘buy’ button, in a surprise segment of the show “60 Minutes Overtime” in December last year, some were reportedly skeptical about such plan.

FedEx CEO Frederick Smith, who founded FedEx in 1970, said there are already two extremely efficient, large-scale transportation networks for moving small, light packages around the US: FedEx and UPS. “The size and scale of these operations are so big that it’s almost amusing some of the comments about delivering items by drones,” he said, according to John McDuling of Quartz.

Although at the same time, Smith was reported to be saying that his company was researching drones for package delivery, but said not to expect such a service anytime soon, and that FedEx chief information officer was testing drones, but that the current version was highly limited in its capabilities.

The UPS, on the other hand, was working quietly on its own version of flying parcel carriers, The Verge reported in December. It also quoted a comment from a UPS spokesman who said that, “The commercial use of drones is an interesting technology and we’ll continue to evaluate it. UPS invests more in technology than any other company in the delivery business, and we’re always planning for the future.”

DHL is also another company with sights on the potential use of delivery drones, according to sUAS News.  In fact, a md4-1000 delivered parcels with medicine from a pharmacy in Bonn, Germany to the DHL-headquarter across the Rhine River. This project demonstrates how microdrones add a new dimension to a logistical value chain, the article continued.

Thus, it looked like DHL had outdone Amazon, but far from it. The delivery had been part of a weeklong test being run by the company, and the customers were DHL employees, according to wired.com.

It’s Amazon, thus far, who may be skyrocketting high ahead of these companies, showing tenacity and determination in pursuing its plans despite the initial derision it received.

A Wired.com article last week, reported that Amazon’s founder and CEO Jeff Bezos wrote in his annual letter to shareholders that the company is doubling down on this wildly ambitious project. Not only is the delivery drone program happening, but according to the CEO, it’s well underway. “The Prime Air team is already flight testing our 5th and 6th generation aerial vehicles, and we are in the design phase on generations 7 and 8,” he writes.

Using Drones for Providing Internet Service

The futuristic idea of internet drones swarming 65,000 feet above has become a real possibility with the entrance of two technology giants into the game: Facebook and Google through their respective purchases of drone maker startups.

Facebook (has) bought a Somerset-based designer of solar-powered drones for $20m (£12m) as it goes head-to-head with Google in a high-altitude race to connect the world’s most remote locations to the internet, it was reported last month. The article noted that Mark Zuckerberg, Facebook’s chief executive, has unveiled plans to beam broadband connections from the skies, using satellites, lasers and unmanned high-altitude aircraft designed by the 51-year old British engineer Andrew Cox.

On Monday, April 14, Google announced that it has acquired Titan Aerospace, a start-up founded in 2012 that makes high-altitude, solar-powered drones. The purchase is part of the new push in Silicon Valley to find ways of delivering Internet service to underserved areas, particularly in the developing world.

These recent acquisitions by Facebook and Google have been viewed as a race for dominance in the skies. What makes these purchases a bit more intriguing is the fact that Facebook was said to be in talks with Titan weeks before it closed the deal with Ascenta. However, it is to be noted that Facebook deal is an acqui-hire, with Ascenta’s founders and its employees joining Facebook team working on its connectivity aircraft. See

One reason Facebook and Google are veering toward solar-powered aircraft is that balloons are at the mercy of weather, said Kurt Barnhart, director of the Applied Aviation Research Center at Kansas State University. Balloons “are larger and harder to control,” he said, while solar power is a better choice for unmanned aircraft than batteries, which can only keep aircraft afloat for an hour or two. Fossil fuels are more expensive and would require regular refueling. See here

 

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