Jan 2, 2024 - Technology

2024 will be a breakout year for delivery drones

Illustration of drones holding stars flying in a line

Illustration: Natalie Peeples/Axios

After more than a decade of development, delivery drones are finally going mainstream this year.

  • Still, they won't be quite as ubiquitous as the blue Amazon vans or brown UPS trucks in your neighborhood — yet.

What's happening: With some (but not all) regulatory hurdles cleared, retailers, medical centers and logistics platforms will start offering drone delivery in many more suburban neighborhoods in 2024.

  • That means receiving meals, prescriptions and household items at your doorstep in less than 30 minutes.

Why it matters: More electric drones in the sky means fewer noisy trucks on the road and less tailpipe emissions.

  • Your grandchildren will wonder why anyone used a multi-ton vehicle to deliver a 5-pound package.

Background: Until recently, commercial drone operators weren't permitted to fly their aircraft long distances without visual spotters.

  • Having observers staged every mile or so along a drone's route is impractical and costly, which is why companies couldn't afford to scale up drone deliveries.
  • Instead, they were limited to trips within a mile or so of retail partners like Walmart and Walgreens.

Driving the news: That changed last fall when the Federal Aviation Administration began authorizing some drone operators to fly their aircraft "beyond the visual line of sight" (BVLOS).

  • That key breakthrough has opened the door for companies like Zipline, Wing and Amazon to begin more widespread drone deliveries this year.

Amazon, whose executive chairman Jeff Bezos first floated the idea of drone delivery back in 2013, is ramping up toward a goal of 500 million drone deliveries a year by the end of the decade.

  • Until now, Amazon has been operating in just two communities (Lockeford, California, and College Station, Texas) using dedicated drone fulfillment hubs.
  • In 2024, Amazon will add a third U.S. site, plus two more in Europe, before accelerating its push in subsequent years.
  • It's also introducing a smaller, quieter delivery drone, which will be fully integrated into Amazon's delivery network this year.
  • That means Amazon trucks, vans and drones will depart from the same building, giving customers access to faster delivery of a greater selection of items.

Zipline, which started out delivering medical supplies to outposts in Rwanda and Ghana, has already flown more than 60 million commercial autonomous miles and is rapidly expanding its U.S. operations.

  • In 2024, it'll begin deploying its next-generation delivery drones, which includes an autonomous droid lowered by a tether for gentle, precise deliveries. (Until now, it's been dropping packages via parachute.)
  • Customers include restaurants and retailers like Mendocino Farms, Sweetgreen and GNC, as well as medical centers like Cleveland Clinic and Michigan Medicine. Zipline will also be delivering prescriptions and medical supplies in the U.K. starting this year.

Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, has completed over 350,000 deliveries so far, the vast majority in Australia.

  • In the U.S., it's making deliveries for Walmart within a 6-mile range of two superstores in the Dallas area and for certain retailers in Christiansburg, Virginia.
  • Its new Wing Delivery Network is a next-generation logistics platform designed to enable high-volume drone delivery across wider areas.
  • As it continues to grow, Wing plans to use AI to make its operations more efficient. For example, its drones will be able to make decisions about where to leave a package if, say, a customer requests a delivery in their driveway but left their car in the delivery spot.

Other companies, including Walmart-backed DroneUp and Israel's Flytrex, are also planning to expand this year without the limitation of human observers.

What's next: The FAA is focused on developing a standard set of rules for BVLOS operations to make these kinds of deliveries routine, scalable and economically viable, an agency spokesperson tells Axios.

The bottom line: 2024 is the year that drone delivery becomes a reality.

Yes, but: The excitement will wear off quickly, Zipline CEO Keller Renaudo Cliffton predicts.

  • "If our experience in Salt Lake City and Bentonville tells us anything, it's that people go from science fiction to entitlement in seven days."
  • "For seven days, it's pure magic. Then on day eight, they're looking at their watch and saying, 'You're 30 seconds late.'"

Editor's note: This story has been corrected to reflect that Zipline has flown more than 60 million commercial autonomous miles, not 28 million.

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