Drone management: The next frontier

Once commercial drones start filling the skies, how will they be managed?

amazon prime air drone
Credit: Amazon.com

About a year ago, Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos made a bold publicity move – he sat down for a 60 Minutes interview and showed off the company’s planned use of drones for same-day delivery to its customers.

Those familiar with the reluctance surrounding drones in the U.S. knew that Bezos was being overly optimistic. Among many other obstacles to commercial drone use in the country, the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) has been slow to permit widespread commercial use of drones in U.S. airspace. Bezos was getting the public excited for a technology despite the uncertainty over when and how exactly his company will be able to launch it.

If Bezos and every other organization that is eager to launch commercial drones have their way, the U.S. could see an entirely new form of air traffic. How this network of drones is managed carries a lot of implications, from the millions of dollars in costs for the companies that own them to the safety of the people who live on the ground below them.

"Right now when I look at the environment, it seems that the reason we don’t have things in place is exactly that network level," Roei Ganzarski, CEO of resource optimization software company BoldIQ, says. "So the drone capability exists, including if they get lost or lose control with the operator they fly back home, they identify people around them, they’re very technologically capable. The thing that is missing right now, I believe, from an FAA level, is to say 'how do I know that there won’t be 10,000 of those flying around, and let alone hitting each other, hitting passenger planes?'"

See also: IT security whiz sets sights on commercial drone management

To solve this problem, many companies are adapting software designed to optimize resources and the supply chain in other industries for unmanned aerial vehicles. BoldIQ’s software was originally created for a now-defunct air taxi service and creates automatic plans based on the resources at hand, the user’s immediate needs, and the regulations to which it needs to adhere. Extending it to drones only seems natural.

Ganzarski points to transportation services like Uber, Lyft, and taxi services as examples of what could happen if drones are mismanaged.

"The only way for me to promise that you'll have a car within five minutes right now is to load the streets with cars," Ganzarski says. "That's very inefficient."

Just like the taxi industry, flooding the skies with an excess of drones is not only inefficient, but it’s a safety risk. This puts higher value on the tools and techniques that will allow companies to do more with fewer drones.

A potentially game-changing dynamic for the drone network – one which has been nonexistent in the cutthroat competition between Uber and Lyft – is cooperation between the companies using the drones. Steve Banker, service director for supply chain management at analyst and consulting company ARC Advisory Group, wrote in a Forbes article responding to Bezos's 60 Minutes interview last year that "to achieve higher volumes [of deliveries], multiparty retailer/courier collaboration would be very helpful." Banker's article pointed to optimization tools that can forecast delivery routes for drones and process data in real time to create a more efficient route. These tools open all kinds of possibilities, from cheaper delivery to flexible pricing. But they all require an open drone ecosystem that maximizes access for every organization that needs them.

"If the courier company can flex and add new couriers that use their own vehicles, then demand spikes can be easily accommodated," Banker wrote. "However, if there are transportation capacity issues (the number of delivery vehicles is static), variable delivery fees can be used to shape demand fulfillment. In effect, a buyer is told if we can deliver between 3 and 4 pm, the cost is $5, if you want it between 6 and 7 pm, the fee will be $25."

Ganzarski also suggested drone sharing to supplement optimization techniques. Different organizations using similar drones could use them more efficiently if they were open to sharing information, if not sharing drones themselves. As an example, Ganzarski mentioned the U.S. Forest Service, which actually explored drones to monitor wildfires before FAA restrictions forced it to shelve the plan, as the kind of organization that could find itself sharing data and even hardware to get better use out of drones.

"Since we know where the Amazon drones or the Google drones [are], as an example, then if there is a fire, we can optimize the use of the Amazon drones to deliver packages differently, and use some of those drones as an emergency need for the forestry service to look at where the fires are," he says.

This same kind of collaboration could be applied among drones used to deliver packages ordered on Amazon or Google and delivered by couriers, some of which have expressed interest in drone delivery, to ensure the most efficient delivery time. As long as deliveries are made, it doesn't necessarily matter who owns the vehicles that carried them out.

The impending drone ecosystem presents a big opportunity for a lot of organizations. Those that use the data to manage the drone network more effectively just might be the ones to capitalize on it.

"It's really not all about saying 'what's the empty drone?' It's not about which is the closest drone," Ganzarski  says. "It's all about which is the right drone with the right operator for the right mission given everything that's going on right now."

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