We may soon have a tracker to keep an eye on the devices delivering drugs in Africa, carrying tonne-loads in China and investigating wind farms in Ireland.
The number of drones in operation above our heads is growing by the day, spurred by military activities, sped up by consumer devices and now, finally, entering the commercial space.
Though Amazon is the primary advocate of a drone service, it is just one of a number of online retailers investigating this new age of deliveries.
And Amazon may now be lagging behind the rest.
China’s JD.com, for example, claims to have developed a drone that can deliver packages weighing as much as one tonne.
Chen Zhang, CTO of JD.com – the second largest retailer in China – said rural villages are the target market, both broadening the company’s reach and reducing any subsequent delivery costs.
“So today, as you have seen in China, e-commerce is huge, but in remote villages most people are not benefitting from e-commerce … so to solve that problem we will develop our drone program,” Zhang told CNBC this week.
JD.com’s activities of late are seeing some serious weight being put on drones’ shoulders. The company has drones that can fly up to 100kph when carrying up to 15kg of goods, but it’s JD.com’s trials of one-tonne loads that could prove most interesting.
The company is currently developing six different types of delivery drones across 10 different provinces in China, matching the activities from the likes of Amazon in North America.
And it’s not just delivering retail products to customers that sees drones taking to the skies.
Out of Africa
For example, in Rwanda, an early commercial test of unmanned aerial vehicles cuts a medical facility’s time to procure blood from four hours to just 15 minutes. Zipline, the company behind the project, spotted an obvious way to get much-needed loads to the right place at the right time.
Meanwhile, the biggest wind farm in Ireland is using drones to investigate turbines as they work.
Energia recently completed a successful pilot project for autonomous drone inspections, with drones following predetermined flight paths around the turbines. The new drone capability has the potential to automatically identify snags or defects, and helps to enhance overall efficiency and safety on site.
But how can all these projects– and many, many more in between – operate without any coordinated air traffic control, as utilised to such efficient success in the air-travel industry?
We might not have to wonder for long.
This week, Project Wing – Alphabet’s drone delivery project – tested a new system to manage drone traffic.
Essentially a replica of standard air traffic control, this was the first step towards a coordinated management system for drone flight.
“We showed that our traffic management platform can manage the complex flight paths of multiple unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) at the same time,” said James Ryan Burgess, co-lead of Project Wing.
“This is an important step that paves the way to a future where many UAS operators can fly safely together. It also makes it possible for a single operator – a person or organisation – to fly multiple aircraft simultaneously.”
Project Wing’s expertise in this area has been growing in recent years, part organically, part by design.
For example, although the operation has been on the go for years, and delivered “hundreds of lunches to hungry students and employees” via drones in a trial just last year, it has been bolstered by Alphabet’s dismantling of Project Titan.
Titan was originally aimed at delivering internet access to the globe via drones but, with Alphabet’s Project Loon doing so well, Titan was disbanded last year.
Titan employees were spread throughout the company, some heading to Wing, which is now front and centre of the future policing of the skies.
Make it a reality
“We’re continuing to work hard to make UAS delivery a reality, transporting goods through the sky in a way that’s inexpensive, fast and environmentally sensitive,” said Burgess.
“Yesterday’s [6 June] tests showed that an important foundational technology is making good progress, and we look forward to updating you on additional tests in the coming months.”
So, someday in future, we might see Google’s parent company Alphabet monitoring where Amazon’s drones are delivering goods.
Perhaps a contemporary search engine and analytics tool, taken to the skies.