When infrastructure breaks down, business slows down. If you have ever sat in a traffic jam caused by road construction, you know what I’m talking about. Traffic congestion slows down everyone, including the more than 1.3 million delivery drivers on the road in the US. In his book The Road Taken: The History and Future of America’s Infrastructure, Henry Petroski says traffic congestion is costing the US economy more than $120 billion per year.
One solution to the problem involves fixing the roads, bridges, tunnels, and other components that form our traditional transportation infrastructure, but that solution is both costly and complicated. A study conducted in 2019 revealed that the US would need to spend more than twice the $105 billion it was spending annually to keep up with road maintenance. The study also found it would take six years of that level of spending to bring the infrastructure to an acceptable level.
Another solution involves using drones, or unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs), to develop delivery networks that do not rely on roads. Literally and figuratively, drones take the weight off of the roads when it comes to delivery infrastructure. By avoiding the congestion that regularly clogs delivery routes, drones not only improve delivery systems but also deliver economic efficiencies that can pave new paths for business development.
Traditional Delivery Infrastructure Problems
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act of 2021 was signed by President Joe Biden to address the failing US infrastructure. The fact sheet released by the White House act reveals the magnitude of the problems with the traditional delivery infrastructure. It explains that 173,000 total miles of US highways, which represents 20 percent of the total, are in poor condition. In addition, 45,000 bridges are also in poor condition. The Act commits $110 billion of new funds to address those issues. The money earmarked for bridge repair is the most significant investment since the U.S. highway system was established in the 1950s.
Those numbers reveal the challenges related to maintaining the nation’s traditional infrastructure. It is outdated and long overdue for significant maintenance, despite the $100 billion spent on repairs annually. Traditional infrastructure also is resource-intensive, demanding constant and costly upkeep. It is underfunded, with maintenance efforts often failing to reach beyond urban areas. And it is inefficient, costing businesses more than $100 billion annually because it cannot deliver stability.
Still, the US continues to pour money into the system because it is critical. To date, there have not been any other options for ensuring that medicine and other necessary supplies get to those in need. Now, however, technology developments are leading many to view drones as the solution to the delivery infrastructure problem.
Demands For Drone Infrastructure
A McKinsey and Co. report on “air-mobility infrastructure” explains the three components necessary for supporting drone infrastructure. They include “vertiports,” basically the launch pads for drones, charging stations and receiving vessels for deliveries. The vertiports are the equivalent of the warehouses from which traditional delivery vehicles depart. The charging stations are the gas stations. The receiving vessels are the delivery destinations, such as the front door of a home or the lobby of an office building.
When compared with the needs of traditional delivery infrastructures, it is easy to see that drones rely on a much more manageable framework. The infrastructure challenges currently stressing the U.S. economy are focused on the roads that connect the warehouses, gas stations and office lobbies. With drone delivery, those challenges are non-existent.
For the most part, the critical components mentioned in the McKinsey report already exist. For example, Dronedek has developed a “smart mailbox” that is designed to automatically receive drone deliveries and store them securely in a temperature-controlled environment. Wing, a subsidiary of Alphabet, began providing drone delivery services in April 2022 in the Dallas-Fort Worth area. Wing uses shipping containers in the parking lots of the businesses it serves as the vertiports to deploy drones. The company has successfully made more than 200,000 drone deliveries in other cities.
Next Steps In Drone Development
The primary challenge facing those working on drone infrastructure involves developing Unmanned Traffic Management systems that guide drones around obstacles in their airspace. These systems need to account for changing urban landscapes and varying weather conditions. They also must consider certain aviation regulations and the possibility of encountering other drones. Once developed, these systems will dramatically increase the utility of drones for delivery services. In addition, if they are developed through a partnership between the private and public sectors, the technology could be standardized for future drone development and implemented at scale.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act authorizes a $500 million program known as the Strengthening Mobility and Revolutionizing Transportation (SMART) Grant Program. The Department of Transportation Office of Multimodal Infrastructure and Freight program will make funds available for drone projects.
Drone developers should take full advantage of any benefits offered by the program. Despite the considerable progress developing a drone infrastructure, the runway to full implementation is a long one that involves satisfying a wide range of technical and regulatory concerns. Establishing drones as a viable delivery option promises to deliver benefits to businesses and consumers alike. It also promises to make all of our commutes less taxing. The sooner it is a reality, the better.
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