Jeff Bezos claims that Amazon (NASDAQ:AMZN) will be using Prime Air to deliver packages by drone to your door in the next few years. Not only will this help with lost packages, it will also take delivery trucks off the road, reducing traffic congestion and pollution.
Just as Amazon ’s e-commerce model revolutionized retail and distribution, Prime Air will likely spawn new industries and services. But there is still a long way to go before drone delivery is a reality.
Before that happens, drones need to be capable of carrying heavy loads long distances, without running out of power or colliding with existing infrastructure. Using drones to deliver at the last mile means service points in many new locations across metropolitan and rural America.
Today those service points don’t exist. New infrastructure will be required. This, of course, is driving excitement about the upcoming explosive growth of 5G telecommunications. But the other key item is power.
The solution to an accelerated and more profitable roll-out of Prime Air and other drone services will be to bypass that ugly, slow, expensive grid infrastructure and to use solar power. By using lightweight solar cells to recharge the drones on-the-go, they will be able to fly non-stop for longer periods of time.
These solar-powered drones will require less maintenance, have longer battery life, and fewer will be needed because the drone hubs can be put anywhere any time. Solar-powered drone deployment becomes easy and quick, making it more responsive to market demands. Taken one step further, and the deployment of solar-powered drones will also assist in a surge of services.
Running Drones On The Sun
Generating enough reliable power from the sun to charge a drone is obviously the first hurdle.
One of the key steps is making solar cells lightweight. Alta Devices, a solar cell developer, recently designed a solar cell technology that is extremely thin and lightweight. This solar technology can be embedded into the drone, which will also maximize a drone’s speed and effectiveness.
The second important consideration is the weather. What happens if a drone is in Boston during the dark, rainy, cloudy days of November? The solar cells on the drone won’t be able to produce enough power to maintain their battery life.
Developments in battery technologies, including lithium-ion batteries, and advanced power control and analytics, mean that solar charged batteries are becoming more efficient and the performance and reliability rates are improving. Power consumption is increasingly more efficient and battery usage is optimized to ensure that the drone remains powered regardless of the weather. The same technology is being used by cell phone manufacturers to make phones charge more quickly and last longer when doing a software update.
Tesla has pushed the industry to deliver the latest advancements in lithium-ion technology, and recent new battery start-ups are entering the market to disrupt and investment is following. Sila Nanotechnologies, co-founded by an ex- Tesla employee, recently raised $70 million in a Series D financing from a number of investors, led by Sutter Hill Ventures.
QuantumScape, in partnership with Volkswagen (VOW.Germany), is also developing a solid-state battery. Last year Volkswagen increased its stake with a $100 million investment, giving QuantumScape a valuation of $1.75 billion. The battery would allow Volkswagen’s E-Golf to travel 466 miles, approximately 200 miles more than its current range, on just a single charge. QuantumScape’s battery is projected to be faster-charging and lighter than current lithium-ion batteries.
The third issue is communicating with the drone so that you know where it is. GPS and wireless communications enable tracking systems, allowing companies such as Amazon , UPS, and FedEx to track their packages, while giving customers real-time updates. Not only will customers have better intelligence on where their package is, but companies can be alerted of an issue with the drone, enabling them to mitigate a lost or incorrect delivery long before the customer discovers it.
In terms of capital and operational costs, solar-powered drones will reduce delivery times, human errors, and costs to companies who wish to deliver their packages fast, increasing their consumer base and profits. It will be critical to absorbing the ever-increasing package delivery demand that has arrived due to e-commerce.
Solar Drones, Isn’t That Just Science Fiction?
There have already been a number of pilot projects in solar-powered drones and drone delivery services. It’s just a case of putting the two together.
Titan Aerospace, which was acquired by Alphabet (NASDAQ:GOOGL), Google ’s parent company, developed the world’s first solar-powered unmanned aircraft. With the ability to operate at an altitude of 65,000 feet for up to five years, it was the first step in creating a solar-powered drone.
This paved the way for Alphabet ’s Project Loon, which will provide wireless Internet through high-altitude balloons with solar-powered telecom systems. In 2017, it launched Internet balloons over Puerto Rico to help 100,000 people access the Internet after Hurricane Maria.
Alphabet ’s Project Wing is also planning to launch commercial drone delivery service soon. It has already done pilot trials with deliveries of tacos and pharmaceutical drugs by drone in Australia. The maximum distance the drones can travel is 14 kilometers, with parcels weighing up to 1.5 kilograms. Solar-powered drones could extend this distance considerably.
Amazon’s Prime Air completed its first fully autonomous delivery in 2016. The delivery system is being designed to get packages to Amazon’s customers in 30 minutes or less. The drones are being built with sophisticated “sense and avoid” technology, so as to not disrupt current infrastructure.
Logistics companies like UPS are also looking to develop drone delivery services. UPS recently partnered with drone startup Matternet, to complete routine daily flights transporting blood samples in North Carolina. Previously hospitals relied on cars, which could be subject to road delays. This partnership comes after Matternet raised a $16 million round, led by Boeing HorizonX Ventures, after the Federal Aviation Administration selected the startup to work on drone logistics operations for hospitals across the U.S.
Some smaller players are also looking to disrupt the logistics landscape with drone delivery.
Zipline, a robotics company has designed drones to deliver medicine to those in need. Later this year Zipline will be sending its fleet of drones to North Carolina to set up networks of medical distribution centers using drones to make crucial medical deliveries. And last year Indianapolis-based DroneDek received a U.S. patent for its solar-powered drone delivery “mailbox,” which will include a charging station powered by solar or grid electricity.
All of these drone delivery projects will rely relying on recharging stations that use electricity. Solar power will become the dominant method of powering drones. With the latest technological advancements, I think this will take off in the next 2-5 years.
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