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Will 'delivery by drone' become the norm?

01/16/2014 @ 10:24am

Thirty minutes or less. While that may seem reasonable for the delivery of pizza, is it a possibility for packages? According to Amazon.com CEO Jeff Bezos, it won’t be long before drones will be delivering orders to your doorstep – and in some cases, in less than 30 minutes.

Late last year, Amazon unveiled Prime Air, which utilizes drones to deliver parcels weighing less than 5 pounds in a 10-mile radius. Because 86% of Amazon’s deliveries are under 5 pounds, the sky could be filled with package-bearing drones by 2017, which is the company’s goal.

Not to be outdone, Google recently added its eighth robot maker, Boston Dynamics, to its arsenal in 2013. While the company is tight-lipped about what it plans to do with its acquisitions, what is clear is that the search engine giant has its sights set on a robot-filled future.

U.S. companies aren’t the only ones exploring this concept. A Chinese delivery company, SF Express, has begun developing unmanned aerial systems (UAS) that have the ability to carry packages across long distances and to reach remote areas.

Based in Shenzhen, the company’s drones are equipped with eight propellers, a space for attaching packages, and can reach an altitude of nearly 329 feet.

With all of the holiday hubbub over packages not being delivered in time for Christmas, maybe Amazon, Google, and SF Express are on to something.

Dropping in on ag

Does all of this talk about delivery by drone mean that in the not-so-distant future a tractor, planter, or combine part will be airlifted in to your farm?

“If it is legal and economical, it may be used,” says Iowa farmer and pilot Jim Meade. “Consider that many parts will be too heavy, bulky, or perhaps delicate to be transported by UAS. Operations will be affected by weather, visibility, nearness to certain facilities, and so forth. There has to be a safe way to deliver the package.”

Currently, commercial use of UAS is prohibited in national airspace. However, the FAA is working to develop guidelines by the end of 2015. It released a 60-page road map in November 2013 for integrating UAS into a very complex system. FAA selected the six test sites for unmanned aircraft research, which is the next critical step to incorporating UAS.

“In designating the first UAS test sites, the FAA has taken an important step toward recognizing the incredible economic and job-creation potential this technology brings,” says Michael Toscano, president of the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International. “Our economic report projects that the expansion of UAS technology will create more than 100,000 jobs and have an economic impact of more than $82 billion in the first decade following integration.”

An ag perspective

With a nearly 30-year history in supplying parts to farmers, Abilene Machine, Inc. has shipped more than its share of orders. What does the company, who has more than 100,000 part numbers in its system, think of delivery by drone?

“We’re definitely open to it, but there would have to be a few things addressed before I see it working for us,” says Abilene sales manager Jay Russell.

While only 14% of Amazon’s packages weigh over 5 pounds, the majority of Abilene’s packages are 25 pounds or more.

“We struggle with how it would work with that much weight on board,” he says. “Safety is definitely an issue, but it seems anything is possible in this day and age.”

Meade agrees and says, “I can see it now. Every farm will have a GPS-surveyed helipad for deliveries.”

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