The future of transportation – of people and goods – will be in the sky.
In case you haven’t noticed it by looking up, you can see it plainly in the numbers: In the United States alone, more than 377,000 commercial drones currently are registered with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). That’s up from more than 277,000 at the end of 2018.
Until now, the unmanned aerial vehicles, or UAVs, have mostly been used for collecting views of the world from above. Farmers use drones to survey their crops; utilities use them to inspect power lines. Oil and gas companies fly them to examine offshore equipment, and insurance companies send up drones to map damage after storms. TV producers and filmmakers use them to collect sweeping aerial footage.
But as technologies and regulations evolve, however, so do use cases. One opportunity, in particular, stands out: transportation, which is on the cusp of an airborne drone revolution that will yield major benefits on the ground.
A Third Dimension
There’s a reason that UAVs are the next frontier for transportation. Whether you’re moving cargo or passengers, the ground is the most inefficient place to do it.
Congestion and infrastructure are real constraints. The former continues to increase every year, robbing individuals and businesses of valuable time that’s wasted in transit. Meanwhile, investments in the latter wane even as existing infrastructure crumbles.
It’s evident in every major city in the world. From New York to Nairobi, Los Angeles to London, it can take 30 minutes to travel mere miles.
The solution: Instead of living with the limitations imposed by a two-dimensional world, what’s needed is a third dimension of mobility — which is exactly what advanced aerial mobility vehicles like air taxis and autonomous cargo aircraft promise to create.
Delivering the Future
In April 2019, the FAA granted the first-ever federal approval to make commercial deliveries by drone. Since then, delivery companies and e-commerce giants have received similar approvals, which allow them to use drones to deliver small packages to customers’ doorsteps.
That kind of service could yield extraordinary benefits for consumers by increasing access to medicine, groceries and more in urban as well as rural communities.
It’s not just last-mile delivery that drones will transform, however. It’s also middle-mile logistics, which will transform thanks to the advent of heavy-duty autonomous cargo aircraft that can move between warehouses up to 1,000 pounds or more of goods.
And then there’s transportation of people instead of cargo and parcels. Although flying cars have always sounded like science fiction, Jay Merkle, executive director of the FAA’s UAS Integration Office, has said that the FAA this year will likely grant its first-ever certification of an urban air mobility (UAM) aircraft — a vertical takeoff and landing “air taxi” that passengers eventually will be able to board at hubs known as vertiports. Located on top of office buildings, shopping centers or parking structures, they’ll enable fast flights over short distances.
That means a business traveler who currently spends an hour in traffic driving to the airport will be able to fly there in minutes, then board a traditional commercial jet that will take them to their final destination.
Time savings aren’t the only benefit. Electric vertical takeoff air taxis and cargo UAVs will be cleaner and quieter than traditional helicopters. Plus, they’ll replace some commercial cars and trucks, which means they’ll also have a positive impact on traffic and, as a result, urban quality of life.
The drone-powered future is a powerful proposition, and it’s not as far away as you might think. Within a matter of years, it could be as normal to see parcels and passengers in urban airspace as it is to see birds and bees. That could make the 2020s the decade of advanced aerial mobility.
If we’re witnessing the second “Golden Age of Flight,” as many aviation experts insist that we are — it will be thanks to brilliant technologists who are developing astonishing solutions to complex problems. Consider, for instance, just a few of the challenges that aerospace engineers must overcome:
These are not trivial problems to solve. But thanks to a gold rush of advancements in robotics, electric propulsion and miniaturized sensors, they are, in fact, solvable. Not someday, but today.
And that leaves only one thing for businesses and consumers to do: Prepare for takeoff.