Michigan should be a leader in commercial drones

Today, most conversations around the future of mobility in Michigan begin with an opinion on the future of land transportation. How driverless cars, electric scooters, driverless shuttles will change the world. How smart road infrastructure will make our lives safer, greener and more productive.

What is often left out of these conversations (or at best is a secondary topic) is flexibility. Ever notice that most of the new and most popular mobility solutions are all tied to pavement? When you back up for a second and think about it, where is the flexibility in these innovations? Especially given all the ways people and goods move around in the world today. Whether it’s an autonomous Nuro delivery truck or a flock of Bird e-scooters, autonomous and micro-transit solutions in cities are all constrained by the number, connectedness and condition of roads and sidewalks.

But, what happens in rural areas with only one main road across a vast swath of land? Or, on highways that are always congested (like in Los Angeles)? Or, when a network of roads is flooded or impassable because of a natural disaster?
You might be thinking the answer is flying Ubers, but there is a more resourceful way to deliver your pizza and packages. Drones.

The business case for commercial drones

Drones can fly over bumper-to-bumper traffic, floods and unpaved land. They are ideal for food deliveries and small time-sensitive packages. And, they are essential during times of crisis, undertaking search and rescue operations, firefighting and military combat missions. One day in our lifetime, drones will be able to deliver products to any doorstep in a matter of minutes (even ones without a physical address or wireless network access).

A 2016 McKinsey study estimated that autonomous solutions, including drones, will account for 80% of all consumer parcel deliveries in the next 10 years. That is a fast-moving consumer adoption arc. So fast that the federal government is responding in short order. In May of 2018, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) announced 10 selectees for its Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Integration Pilot Program (IPP) to help develop regulatory processes that will help incorporate drones into US airspace.

Of those honorees, many are looking at projects that will help reduce current issues with traffic congestion, and enable (or design the business case for) future industry and government investment into more creative uses of drone technology.
Commercial drone demonstrations have also grown in notoriety and scope through the years. In 2016, Amazon announced its Prime Air service had safely delivered packages to customers in 30 minutes or less in Cambridge, England. That same year, Dominos made the first commercial food drone delivery in New Zealand.

In February of 2017, UPS announced it had successfully tested a drone that launched from the top of a UPS® package car, autonomously delivered a package to a home, and then returned to the vehicle while the delivery driver continued along the route to make a separate delivery. In October 2018, Uber announced its plans to launch food-delivery drones by 2021.
Additionally, Amazon, Google, General Electric and Boeing are developing private air-traffic control systems for drones. According to a recent Wall Street Journal article, “The commercial drone industry wants to create a privately funded and operated air-traffic control network, separate from the current federal system, to enable widespread operations at low altitudes.”

The business case for Michigan as a commercial drone hub

Michigan has become home to several facilities dedicated to testing autonomous drones. The University of Michigan launched an outdoor lab in March of 2018 titled M-Air. The 9,600 square foot, four-story facility was designed to test autonomous robotic aircrafts outdoors – a.k.a. drones – without safety risks.

It’s not enough for drone technology to be considered cool or convenient. It also has to be safe and coupled with the existing systems that produce our goods and services. Just as driverless car testing is a priority across the state, the same efforts are being placed on drone use and their potential impact on growing Michigan’s economy.

Michigan State University offers a course to teach students how to use drones to benefit agriculture. Through a partnership between the MSU Institute of Agricultural Technology and Northwestern Michigan College, students build their own drones, earn FAA remote-pilot certification and work directly with growers in northwestern Michigan.

Considering technology is moving faster than the regulations, it’s difficult to lay out rules for flight patterns, heights, neighborhoods, etc. This is why Michigan Tech is working on drone catchers to police the air space. Drone catchers are net-dragging drones that capture other drones.

As drones open up new use cases and job opportunities, Mid Michigan College offers a Drone Training program that teaches drone-piloting skills and helps students and hobbyists alike identify potential applications for drones.

Up north, the Michigan Unmanned Aerial Systems Consortium (MUASC), a flight and ground test center, is located at the Alpena County Regional Airport in Alpena, Michigan. MUASC is collaborating with Willow Run Airport in Southeast Michigan to offer similar services conveniently located next to the autonomous ground vehicle development taking place at the American Center for Mobility. MUASC’s capabilities include testing and workforce development.

These examples illustrate that Michigan has the right programs in place to pump out the talent and innovation required to become a world leader in commercial drones over the next 20 years. Now, it's just a matter of getting the right drone manufacturers, assemblers and end users to take advantage of all Michigan has to offer.

What do advances in drone technology mean for you?

Even with all of the progress being made, the challenges must also be acknowledged. In addition to ensuring safety, if AV technology will account for 80% of delivery services, what happens to the employees who earn their living by delivering those items? We need the same companies that are advancing drone use to explain exactly how these advances will impact people and jobs.

We also have to find consistent solutions for drone design. On average, drones can only hold up to 3 lbs and are not currently effective in all weather conditions.

Even with their challenges, drones are becoming increasingly visible as part of a long-term strategy for automation and autonomous technology. Ford is now testing drones to “provide an extra set of eyes” beyond a vehicle’s built-in sensors for driving into the woods or off traditional roads. Just like Google and Amazon, Ford is looking for another way to deliver on their customer's mobility demands: movement that is more reliable and more convenient. After all, whether innovation comes by land or air, customer service is what it’s all about.

Keep an eye out for drone-focused programs and resources from PlanetM this year.
Signup for Email Alerts