Drones

There is no doubt that unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), i.e. drone aircraft or drones, are an increasingly popular and strangely normal aspect of our everyday lives in 2020. And how could they not be? When there is a product that can appeal to pretty much any and every one – from farmers wanting to efficiently monitor their crops, to those of us just looking to take the perfect selfie – it’s going to be explosively popular. Even military forces around the world are getting in on the action. The innovative uses for drones seem borderline infinite, and there is no questioning their utility even when applied in ways that may come as a surprise. 

One use that many people are likely familiar with is that of commercial delivery. A number of companies within the United States have been eyeing the drone delivery market for some time now, particularly UPS and Alphabet’s Wing. Typically, the Federal Aviation Administration’s (FAA) rules governing drone flight in the United States require, among other things, that the drone remain in the operator’s line of sight for the entirety of the flight. This generally goes for both hobbyists and commercial operators. However, the FAA, in an effort to encourage and not stifle innovation, created the Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP).

To promote continued technological innovation and to ensure the global leadership of the United States in this emerging industry, the regulatory framework for UAS operations must be sufficiently flexible to keep pace with the advancement of UAS technology, while balancing the vital Federal roles in protecting privacy and civil liberties; mitigating risks to national security and homeland security; and protecting the safety of the American public, critical infrastructure, and the Nation’s airspace.

Presidential Memorandum for the Secretary of Transportation, Unmanned Aircraft Systems Integration Pilot Program

Additionally, the FAA has in place one particular process that allows operators to obtain exemption from specific rules governing drone flight: Part 135 certification process. All IPP participants go through the Part 135 certification process, including those companies looking to dive into the package delivery market. Currently, “Part 135 certification is the only path for small drones to carry the property of another for compensation beyond visual line of sight.” Both UPS and Alphabet’s Wing are IPP participants and have been granted Part 135 certificates, although not for the same type of operations – you can check out the four types operations for which operators can be granted a Part 135 certificate here.

It was announced on October 1, 2019 that UPS subsidiary UPS Flight Forward was awarded a Part 135 Standard certification, the first ever. Flight Forward, in partnership with drone manufacturer Matternet, started in and has continued to hone its operation model for drone delivery within the healthcare industry, with WakeMed Hospital in Raleigh, NC as the starting point. It has been reported that one goal of the program is to test delivery of healthcare necessities in area where roads may not be a viable option – think natural disasters. 

“This is history in the making, and we aren’t done yet. . . . We will soon announce other steps to build out our infrastructure, expand services for healthcare customers and put drones to new uses in the future.”

David Abney, UPS chief executive officer

Recently, the Flight Forward drone delivery service program has expanded its services to the University of California San Diego (USCD) Health system where the company’s drones will be used to transport things like blood samples and documents short distances between centers.

Interestingly enough, a proposed rule from the FAA was just recently (February 3, 2020) published in the Federal Register. The proposal, titled Type Certification of Unmanned Aircraft Systems, essentially wants to open the door to more companies who want to get involved in small-package delivery via drone fleets. This type of regulatory framework for delivery drones should work much in the same way that the type certification process operates for other aircraft, a model-by-model certification process that allows approved models to then operate throughout the US. If you feel particularly strongly about this, the FAA is accepting public comment on the proposed rule until March 4, 2020.

This seems to be just the tip of the iceberg of what needs to be and may soon be done to promote widespread use of and explosive growth within the commercial drone delivery world, but it is definitely a big step toward getting that goal off the ground – no pun intended. If nothing else, this change is a good example of how the law is attempting to keep up with innovations in technology and increases in demand for such services, and how policymakers are remaining flexible in their approaches.

As audiences worldwide await the release of Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker, a few recent developments in transportation technology are taking cues (directly or indirectly) from the technology of a galaxy far, far away.

Last week, the opening ceremony of a new ride at Star Wars: Galaxy’s Edge, the Star Wars themed land at Walt Disney World, included actual flying X-Wing starfighters, built from Boeing-made drones. There are two important things to take from this development: (1) Boeing is apparently now a supplier for General Leia Organa’s Resistance, and; (2) Boeing is confident enough in their “Cargo Air Vehicle” drone to allow a highly-publicized public display. The all-electric Cargo Air Vehicle flew for the first time earlier this year, and is designed to carry up to 500 lbs. of cargo at a time. I’ve written about aerial delivery drones before, in October and September, but this new Boeing vehicle has a much higher carrying capacity than the smaller drones those articles focused on. Of course, a highly controlled environment like a major theme park is perhaps not as challenging an environment as the vehicles would face elsewhere, the visibility of this deployment raises interesting questions about Boeing’s future plans for the testing and deployment of the vehicles.

Another emerging technology that is attempting to recreate the Star Wars universe here on Earth is flying taxis. A number of prototype flying taxis have been revealed over the past few years, though none have the smooth lines of those seen in Star Wars, or the retro-styling of another sci-fi mainstay, the Jetson’s car. In June, Uber showed off the design of their proposed air taxi, an electric vehicle they will be testing in LA and Dallas in 2020. Industry boosters see a future with many such vehicles crisscrossing major metro areas (hmmm…where have I seen that before…). However, there are a number of challenges:

  • How do you make them cost-effective? Aircraft are expensive, and the proposed air taxis are no different. So how do you make them efficient enough to justify their cost? Will making them electric do the trick, or will the cost of batteries and other equipment sink the concept?
  • What is the economy of scale for this type of transportation? Right now, Uber offers helicopter flights from Manhattan to JFK Airport for $200-225 a person. If an air taxi ride has similar costs, how many people will really take advantage of them?
  • What infrastructure will they need? Where are they going to land? Uber has mocked-up glossy “skyport” designs, which they say will combine street-level mobility with their aerial offerings, but how many of these will be necessary if more than one company operates in a given metro area? Will skyports proliferate? In some cities, like London, there is already a scramble for roof space to transform into landing pads for air taxis and drones.
  • How do we regulate these vehicles? Between the aerial taxis and delivery drones, the skies would seem to be primed for traffic jams. Does the FAA retain full control over everything flying, or will states and even municipalities have to step in to help regulate a proliferation of flying vehicles?

Just like connected and automate vehicles, air taxes mix promising new technology with a sci-fi edge. It remains to be seen if air taxis will actually prove cost-effective enough to function for anyone other than the wealthy, but if Disney World’s use of drone X-Wings is any indication, a new hope for aerial vehicles may be just around the corner.

P.S. – Those who are skeptical of self-driving vehicles may have found a new patron saint in The Mandalorian, who turns down a droid-piloted speeder in favor of one driven by a person (also, apparently Uber service in the Outer Rim involves flutes?). To be fair, Mando later has some issues with his adorable companion playing with the controls of his ship, proving that humanoid controlled vehicles are still prone to problems (Han could have told him that).

October 2019 Mobility Grab Bag

Every month brings new developments in mobility, so let’s take a minute to breakdown a few recent developments that touch on issues we’ve previously discussed in the blog:

New AV Deployments

This month saw a test deployment of Level 4 vehicles in London, which even allowed members of the public to be passengers (with a safety driver). Meanwhile, in Arizona, Waymo announced it will be deploying vehicles without safety drivers, though it appears only members of their early-access test group will be riding in them for now. We’ve written a lot about Waymo, from some early problems with pedestrians and other drivers, to the regulations placed on them by Arizona’s government, to their potential ability to navigate human controlled intersections.

Georgia Supreme Court Requires a Warrant for Vehicle Data

This Monday, the Georgia Supreme Court, in the case of Mobley v. State, ruled that recovering data from a vehicle without a warrant “implicates the Fourth Amendment, regardless of any reasonable expectations of privacy.” The court found that an investigator entering the vehicle to download data from the vehicle’s airbag control unit constituted “physical intrusion of a personal motor vehicle,” an action which “generally is a search for purposes of the Fourth Amendment under the traditional common law trespass standard.” Given the amount of data that is collected currently by vehicles and the ever-increasing amount of data that CAVs can and will collect, rulings like this are very important in dictating how and when law enforcement can obtain vehicle data. We’ve previously written about CAVs and the 4th Amendment, as well as other privacy implications of CAVs, both in regards to government access to data and the use of CAV data by private parties.  

Personal Cargo Bots Could Bring Even More Traffic to Your Sidewalk

In May, as part of a series on drones, I wrote about a number of test programs deploying small delivery bots for last-mile deliveries via the sidewalk. A recent Washington Post article highlights another potential contender for sidewalk space – personal cargo bots. Called “gita” the bot can travel at up to 6 mph as it uses it’s onboard cameras to track and follow its’ owner, via the owner’s gait. The bot’s developers see it as helping enhance mobility, as it would allow people to go shopping on foot without being concerned about carrying their goods home. For city-dwellers that may improve grocery trips, if they can shell out the $3,000+ price tag!

Even More Aerial Drones to Bring Goods to Your Door

Last month, as part two the drone series, I looked at aerial delivery drones. In that piece I mentioned that Google-owned Wing would be making drone deliveries in Virginia, and Wing recently announced a partnership with Walgreens that will be part of that test. Yesterday Wired pointed out that UPS has made a similar deal with CVS – though it remains to be seen if the drones will have to deliver the infamously long CVS receipts as well. As Wired pointed out, drugstores, since they carry goods that could lead to an emergency when a home runs out of them (like medication and diapers), speedy air delivery could fill a useful niche. So next time you’re home with a cold, you may be able to order decongestant to be flown to your bedside, or at least to the yard outside your bedroom window.

P.S. – While not related to any past writings, this article  is pretty interesting – Purdue scientists took inspiration from the small hairs on the legs of spiders to invent a new sensor that can ignore minor forces acting on a vehicle while detecting major forces, making it easier for CAVs and drones to focus computing power on important things in their environment without getting distracted.

The European Union recently adopted new rules to help consumers repair household appliances like refrigerators and televisions. The rules require manufacturers to provide spare parts for years after sale – the number of years depending on the device. The “Ecodesign Directive” is intended to help protect the environment by extending the life of consumer appliances. The regulation also applies to servers, requiring firmware updates for 7 years post-production. These regulations are part of a larger battle over consumers’ right to repair their belongings, including vehicles. Vehicles are already part of the right to repair discussion, and the deployment of technically complicated CAVs will ramp up that conversation, as some manufacturers seek to limit the ability of individuals to repair their vehicles.

One current battle over the right to repair is taking place in California. In September of last year, the California Farm Bureau, the agricultural lobbying group that represents farmers, gave up the right to purchase repair parts for farm equipment without going through a dealer. Rather than allowing farmers to buy parts from whomever they’d like, California farmers have to turn to equipment dealers, who previously were unwilling to even allow farmer’s access to repair manuals for vehicles they already owned. A big part of the dispute stems from companies like John Deere placing digital locks on their equipment that prevent “unauthorized” repairs – i.e. repairs done by anyone other than a John Deere employee. The company even made farmers sign license agreements forbidding nearly all repairs or modifications, and shielding John Deere from liability for any losses farmers may suffer from software failures. Some farmers resorted to using Ukrainian sourced firmware to update their vehicle’s software, rather than pay to hire a John Deere technician. The California case is especially ironic, as the state has solid right to repair laws for other consumer goods, requiring companies to offer repairs for electronics for 7 years after production (though companies like Apple have been fighting against the state passing even more open right to repair laws).

In 2018, supporters of the right to repair were boosted by a copyright decision from the Librarian of Congress, which granted an exception to existing copyright law to allow owners and repair professionals to hack into a device to repair it. The exception is limited, however, and doesn’t include things like video game consoles, though its’ language did include “motorized land vehicles.”

So how could battles over the right to repair influence the deployment of CAVs? First off, given the amount of complicated equipment and software that goes into CAVs, regulations like those recently adopted in the EU could help extend the lifespan of a vehicle. Cars last a long time, with the average American vehicle being 11.8 years old. Right to repair laws could require manufactures to supply the parts and software updates needed to keep CAVs on the road. New legislation could protect consumer access to the data within their vehicle, so they don’t have to rely on proprietary manufacturer systems to know what’s going on inside their vehicle. A 2011 study of auto repair shops showed a 24% savings for consumers who used a third-party repair shop over a dealership, so independent access to data and spare parts is vital to keeping consumer maintenance costs down. People are very used to taking their cars to independent repair shops or even fixing them at home, and many consumers are likely to want to keep their ability to do so as CAVs spread into service.

P.S. – Two updates to my drone post from last week:

Update 1 – University of Michigan (Go Blue!) researchers have demonstrated a drone that can be used to place shingles on a roof, using an interesting system of static cameras surrounding the work-site, rather than on-board cameras, though it remains to be seen how many people want a nail gun equipped drone flying over their head…

Update 2 – UPS has been granted approval to fly an unlimited number of delivery drones beyond line-of-sight, though they still can’t fly over urban areas. They have been testing the drones by delivery medical supplies on a North Carolina hospital campus.

Last week I covered the various companies who are seeking to use aerial drones to deliver goods to your door. Today, in the third part to my series on delivery (you’ll find Part 1 here, and an even earlier post on delivery, from December of 2018, here), I’m going to look at recent proposals to use automated vehicles to deliver consumer goods.

As an introduction, I’m going to include a paragraph from that December 2018 post as an introduction to some of the ways automated vehicles are being used to make deliveries :

The potential for CAVs as delivery vehicles is already being tested by companies like Domino’s and Kroger, among others. Earlier this year Toyota announced delivery partnerships with Amazon and Pizza Hut, and Waymo’s CEO recently highlighted it as an area of opportunity.  This week the New York Times profiled Nuro, the start-up working with Kroger to test robotic delivery cars in Scottsdale, Ariz. Nuro’s vehicles are designed in-house, and look like “toasters-on-wheels,” and are currently followed everywhere they go by human safety drivers in conventionally driven “shadow car.” When the vehicle stops for a delivery, customers enter a PIN code into a small touch pad to open the compartment containing their order. The current charge for same-day delivery using the system is around $6. Ford has also flagged the delivery market as an area they’d like to explore, citing projections that by 2026 the last-mile delivery market for CAVs will hit $130 billion.

Don’t Forget to Tip Your (Robotic) Delivery Driver – Dec. 21, 2018

Since that post, Domino’s has announced a partnership with Nuro as well, with plans to test in Houston at some point this year. Walmart has also jumped in on the action – partnering with another AV developer, Gatik. For now Walmart’s test is limited to a 2-mile route between two of their stores in the company’s hometown of Bentonville, Arkansas. Why the interest? In part because of the potential cost savings – a recent Ford estimate calculates AVs could reduce the cost per mile for deliveries from $2.50 to $1. No doubt the combination of lower costs and ever-greater demand for delivery is a powerful motivator, pushing companies to explore not only AVs, but also drones and delivery bots, as discussed in Parts I and II of this series.

Beyond last-mile deliveries, there is a great deal of interest in automating semi-trucks and other large delivery vehicles. One company, TuSimple, is working with both the U.S. Postal Service (USPS) and UPS to move packages between cities. Interestingly, in UPS’ case, the company only announced the partnership after TuSimple had already been delivering goods for months – which seems to indicate the program is not just a grab for positive PR. The USPS’ test was more limited, running for two-weeks and five round trips. All of the trips included a safety driver and an engineer, and both tests were carried out in the Southwest. Meanwhile, in Sweden, a completely driverless electric truck was deployed in May, a global first. Given a nation-wide shortage of truck drivers (a recent estimate puts the U.S. deficit at roughly 60,000 drivers), automated trucks present a solution that doesn’t overly disrupt a truck-heavy commercial delivery system.

But what would the wide-spread adoption of AVs as part of the delivery ecosystem mean? We can already see that the demand for faster and faster delivery is taking its toll. Recently, the NY Times and Buzzfeed News both published articles detailing the human cost of Amazon’s push for same or next-day delivery. Under-trained drivers pushed to the limit have killed people in seemingly avoidable accidents that don’t often happen with more highly-trained delivery drivers (like those used by the USPS, UPS, and FedEx). Amazon has avoided liability by using a number of third-party companies as contractors, making those companies, and not Amazon, responsible for accidents. AVs would certainly be safer for the public, as they wouldn’t fall prey to the pressures of human drivers, though that does nothing to alleviate the pressures on the human delivery people, who would still be needed to move goods from the vehicle to a door. At the same time, Amazon may continue to escape liability, if the AVs remain owned by third parties. There is also the greater question of the environmental impact of the growing number of delivery vehicles on the road (not to mention the waste created by packing materials and shipping boxes). I’ll leave a greater discussion about those issues to future posts and other forums, but those questions, among so many others (privacy, cybersecurity, and traffic management among them) are important to consider as automated delivery vehicles of all kinds begin to fill our streets and skies.

P.S. – In a follow up to last week’s blog, the USPS has stated to investigate the use of aerial drones, and is now seeking information from drone operators and developers.

This is the much-delayed second part in a series of posts I started earlier this year. In that first post I discussed how companies are experimenting with small delivery robots that crawl along sidewalks to deliver goods right to your door. However, the sidewalk is not the only place where delivery drones may soon be found, as many companies are interested in using aerial drones to bring their products right to consumers.

In April, Wing, a division of Google parent company Alphabet, was given approval to start delivering goods via drone in Canberra, Australia. At launch, the drones were delivering food, medicine, and other products from 12 local businesses. This formal launch came after a trial period that ran for 18 months and 3,000 deliveries. Also in April, Wing received an FAA certification typically used for small airlines, as they begin to plan U.S. based tests, again with the intent to partner with local businesses. Not to be left behind, in June Amazon revealed it’s own delivery drone, which is indented to bring good directly from their warehouses to nearby customers within 30 minutes. Also in June, Uber announced a plan to partner with McDonalds to test delivery drones in San Diego. In Ohio, a partnership between the Air Force and the state government will allow drones to test outside of line-of-sight (a range that most civilian drones are currently limited to by the FAA). One company that intends to take part in the Ohio testing is VyrtX, which is looking to use drones to deliver human organs for transplant. 

But just what would wider use of such delivery drones mean for society? What would it mean to live in a world with robots buzzing around above our heads? In the Australian tests there were complaints about noise, with some residents claiming the sound of the machines caused them significant distress. In January of this year an unidentified drone shut down London’s Heathrow Airport, showing what can happen when drones wander into places they’re not welcome. In February of this year NASA announced two tests of “urban drone traffic management,” one in Texas, and the other in Nevada. Such a system would no doubt be necessary before widespread deployment of any of the systems so far proposed – to prevent incidents like the one in London.   

There is also a major privacy concern with drones collecting data as they fly above homes and businesses. This concern extends beyond just what privately owned drones may find, but also what law enforcement could collect. In Florida v. Riley, a 1988 case, the Supreme Court found that there is not reasonable expectation of privacy from aircraft (in that case, a police helicopter) flying in navigable airspace above a person’s home, when the air craft is flying within FAA regulations. So drones would provide a useful tool for investigations, and one that is limited only by FAA rules.

There are a lot of unanswered questions about delivery drones – and given the highly-regulated nature of all forms of air travel, the federal government, via the FAA, currently has a lot of power over just what can go on in U.S. airspace. What remains to be seen is if this regulatory structure will stifle drone development or instead insure that any market for delivery drones is developed deliberately, rather than ad hoc, with an emphasis on safety.

P.S. – A brief follow-up to my last article – Ford recently partnered with Agility Robotics on a new form of last mile delivery bot, a bipedal unit designed to carry up to 40 pounds. Could it become the C-3PO to the R2-D2-like bots already in testing?