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lunes, 28 de octubre de 2019
By Sebastian Herrera and Alberto Cervantes
Flying robots that deliver packages to people’s doorsteps are no longer science fiction. Companies including Amazon.com Inc., AMZN -3.51% Alphabet Inc. GOOG -0.47% ’s Wing and Uber Technologies Inc. UBER 0.03% are starting the most advanced trials of drone delivery in U.S. history.
While commercial drone delivery faces many hurdles, government-approved tests by the tech giants will mark the first time consumers in parts of the country experience the technology. Wing this month started tests in Christiansburg, Va., while Uber says it will experiment in San Diego before the year ends. Amazon hasn’t revealed where it is operating but said in June it would begin delivering packages to consumers via drone “within months.”
Amazon, Uber and Wing are hardly the only players tinkering with the technology. This month United Parcel Service Inc. gained approval from the Federal Aviation Administration to build out a fleet of unmanned aircraft to deliver health supplies and eventually consumer packages in the U.S.
Experts say wide-scale drone delivery operations will take years to build out. The FAA predicts sales of drones for a wide range of commercial purposes to grow from 600,000 in 2016 to 2.7 million by 2020. The approaches vary, and success is anything but assured.
Drone lands and compartment opens.
Amazon says its hexagonal design allows the drone to switch between a vertical helicopter-like mode and a horizontal airplane mode. The hexagonal wings help stabilize the drone in gusty winds and double as a shroud to protect the six propellers, Amazon says. Amazon first tested a drone service in Cambridge, England, in 2016 and tried out roughly 50,000 design concepts before settling on its latest design. Amazon hasn’t said where it is testing the new drones.
Drone hovers at about 24 feet and lowers a package to the ground with a tether.
Wing’s drone looks more like a small plane. Its two wings, extending more than 3 feet, each feature a propeller and allow the drone to fly further while conserving energy, the company says. Altogether, the drone has 14 propellers designed to reduce noise. Wing, which started in 2012 as a project in Alphabet’s X lab, began trials in Australia in 2014 and has conducted more than 80,000 tests. Wing is initially working with Walgreens Boots Alliance Inc. and FedEx Corp. to deliver small packages, food, beverages and medicine items in Christiansburg. Wing’s parent also owns Google.
Drone lands, and the payload releases automatically.
Uber is using a drone built by another company. The modified AR200 by AirRobot has limitations, flying slower than the other drones and with a more limited range. Uber says that will improve when it begins testing a proprietary drone late this year or early next year. It completed limited tests in May at a McDonald’s near San Diego State University. Uber says residents near the university will soon be able to order drone-delivered food from certain local restaurants through the Uber Eats app.
The drones will take off from different locations.
The companies approach the takeoff differently. Amazon aims to have its Prime Air drones depart from its fulfillment centers with a package in tow. Wing’s drone is designed to hover in the air when it picks up a package from a store, sending a tether down where a worker can attach a package.
Uber said restaurant workers will clip a food package onto Uber’s drone from the ground at the start of the delivery. Like Amazon, Uber’s drone will typically scale vertically to a height of up to 400 feet, the maximum allowed by the FAA. Wing’s drone is slated to travel at heights of 100 feet to 200 feet.
Delivery drones will cruise at different speeds and altitudes.
The companies say drones could dramatically speed up delivery times, with Amazon flying a max of 15 miles round trip and expecting its deliveries to take 30 minutes or less. Wing aims to deliver in less than 10 minutes for a 12-mile range. Uber’s tests in San Diego averaged 7 minutes for a 3-mile range. Wing’s drone can zip at speeds of up to 70 miles an hour, roughly the equivalent of a car on a highway.
The landing may be the most difficult part.
The landing is challenging. The drones have to find a safe spot and ensure they don’t hit anything, including people.
Wing never actually lands. Once the drone reaches customers’ homes a tether lowers a box to the ground from about 24 feet in the air and automatically unclips the package. The company designed the tether to create a safe space between its drone and customers.
Uber said its drones will eventually land on top of vehicles of its Uber Eats drivers, who Uber said will be responsible for the last leg of deliveries-a method it said limits customer interaction with the drones.
Amazon’s payload must carry electronics, household items and other popular products on the retailer’s online marketplace. Amazon’s drone carries packages within a closed compartment that opens once on the ground.
Amazon, Wing, Uber and others face ample obstacles to make drone delivery mainstream, including both physical hurdles and regulatory restrictions.
Amazon, Wing and Uber have to overcome a number of obstructions and concerns before drone delivery can become widespread.
The companies say they have built safeguards to their devices. Amazon uses machine learning algorithms and infrared sensors to detect birds, wires and other obstacles. Amazon programs its drones with scenarios-such as a delivery location not being detected-and commands to follow in such scenarios.
Last winter, Wing tested its drone north of Helsinki during snowy and windy conditions. The company’s drone has built-in wind sensors and is waterproof, with computer chip boards covered in silicon coding. Uber is planning to put a thermal feature in its future drone to keep food items cold or hot.
Unlike airplanes, experts say no standard exists on how drones will identify and communicate with each other while in the air, making drone delivery by multiple companies in the same area not currently possible. Some companies have been given more freedom than others. Wing, for example, has been certified to build out an air carrier network, while Uber and Amazon haven’t.