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September 17, 2018 8:00 AM, EDT

North Carolina Town Eyes Drones as Future of Package Delivery

A Flytrex delivery drone Flytrex

For most people, the concept of a drone delivering a lunchtime sandwich probably still feels like a distant reality. For Aaron Levitt, it feels closer every day.

Levitt is the assistant director of engineering for Holly Springs, N.C. — a booming town near the center of the state — and in that role he’s helped pave the way for a drone delivery partnership with testing tentatively set to begin in the fall.

If all goes according to plan, Holly Springs would be among the first spots in the United States where drones are used for package delivery.

The partnership, which involves the town, the North Carolina Department of Transportation, an Israeli drone company called Flytrex and the Federal Aviation Administration, is a case study in how drone technology is edging further into commercial applications.

For Holly Springs, the process began in earnest in December 2017, when Levitt submitted a letter of intent for the FAA’s unmanned aircraft system integration pilot program (IPP). The town was then approached by Flytrex, which has already implemented a 13-route food delivery-­by-drone system in Iceland, and decided to join together. From there, Levitt brought the concept to NCDOT, and the department added the Holly Springs plans to its own IPP application.

“There’s a lot of approval we still need to get from the FAA,” Levitt said. “There’s not a formal process for this kind of drone application, so we’re kind of going through the process as if we were a regular manned airline. The FAA is adjusting on the go, and NCDOT is interfacing with them directly.”

The first phase of testing will keep drones within the operator’s line of sight — one of the current FAA requirements for commercial drone use. But as the project progresses, Levitt hopes it can help to eliminate regulatory barriers at “a responsible pace.”

Flytrex drone delivery service operating in Iceland

Flytrex is already operating its drone delivery service in Iceland. (Flytrex)

The Holly Springs project is part of a wider effort by NCDOT to test drone capabilities for carrying medical supplies around the state. The FAA accepted NCDOT’s proposal as one of 10 in the country.

Some of the projects are similar, such as in Virginia, where a team is testing package delivery in urban and rural areas in partnership with Google parent company Alphabet.

Others are quite different. The Lee County Mosquito Control District in Fort Myers, Fla., is planning to use drones to control and surveil the local mosquito population.

Like other cities pursuing novel drone applications, members of the project in Holly Springs have worked to allay apprehension they’ve heard from some residents, Levitt said.

“That’s a big part of what the town is responsible for right now: educating people about how these things work, how they’re safe,” he said. “Especially when you compare them to the modes of transportation they’re replacing, drones are much safer.”

And beyond the safety benefits drones can provide, Levitt explained that they would have other positive implications for rapidly developing areas such as Holly Springs, which in less than three decades has seen its population balloon to more than 30,000 people from fewer than 1,000. He reasoned that from energy, emissions and congestion standpoints it made more sense to have a drone — rather than a 3,500-pound car — go out for food deliveries.

Tom McMahon, vice president of advocacy and public affairs at the Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International in Arlington, Va., said that he believes current regulations, such as the line-of-sight rule, are the biggest obstacles to wider adoption of drones in e-commerce.

That makes the prospect of drone delivery more daunting at the moment, McMahon said, but not impossible.

As an example, he cited the Ohio-based electric vehicle company Workhorse, which has partnered with UPS to test other drone applications in final-mile delivery. That company has developed a concept for modified trucks that can deliver packages via drones that emerge from the vehicle’s roof.

“It would be helpful if regulations here in the United States and elsewhere were moving more quickly than they are,” McMahon said. “The FAA is responsible for the airspace, and they do a tremendous job ensuring that we have the safest airspace in the world. But we do need to move more quickly in getting regulation in place that will allow beyond line-of-sight operations, which will enable things like package delivery.”

Additionally, he noted, drones could serve in security and maintenance roles. Rail companies already have started using them to inspect rail networks, monitor cars and, in some cases, keep an eye on employees. Likewise, some power companies have adopted drones for power line and transmission tower inspections. In the coming years, McMahon said, we could even begin to see unmanned flight in passenger-sized aircraft.

Despite the current regula­tory challenges, the use of drones eventually could open up many new possibilities in a wide range of applications.

“I’m excited about it,” Holly Springs’ Levitt said. “I think it’s going to be a huge benefit for people and the environment.”

Top 100 North America Cargo Airports

Rank Airport Name Location Cargo Moved (Millions of Pounds)
1 Memphis International Memphis, Tenn. 23,950
2 Ted Stevens Anchorage International Anchorage, Alaska 17,213
3 Louisville International-Standiford Field Louisville, Ky. 13,404
4 Chicago O'Hare International Chicago 10,374
5 Miami International Miami 7,964
6 Los Angeles International Los Angeles 7,198
7 Cincinnati/Northern Kentucky International Hebron, Ky. 5,700
8 Indianapolis International Indianapolis 5,139
9 Dallas-Fort Worth International DFW Airport Texas 4,155
10 Ontario International Ontario, Calif. 3,523
11 Metropolitan Oakland International Oakland, Calif. 3,272
12 Newark Liberty International Newark, N.J. 2,991
13 John F. Kennedy International Queens, N.Y. 2,938
14 Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Atlanta 2,782
15 Daniel K. Inouye International Honolulu 2,487
16 Seattle-Tacoma International Seattle 2,316
17 Philadelphia International Philadelphia 2,017
18 Phoenix Sky Harbor International Phoenix 1,757
19 George Bush Intercontinental Houston 1,755
20 Portland International Portland, Ore. 1,472
21 Denver International Denver 1,392
22 Chicago/Rockford International Rockford, Ill. 1,382
23 San Francisco International San Francisco 1,254
24 Luis Muñoz Marín International San Juan, Puerto Rico 1,193
25 Salt Lake City International Salt Lake City 1,124
26 Rickenbacker International Columbus, Ohio 1,086
27 Minneapolis-St. Paul International Minneapolis 1,031
28 General Edward Lawrence Logan International Boston 996
29 Orlando International Orlando, Fla. 991
30 Toronto Pearson International Toronto 977
31 Baltimore/Washington International Thurgood Marshall Glen Burnie, Md. 944
32 Fort Worth Alliance Fort Worth, Texas 905
33 Tampa International Tampa, Fla. 853
34 San Antonio International San Antonio 845
35 Bradley International Windsor Locks, Conn. 818
36 Detroit Metropolitan Wayne County Detroit 789
37 Boeing Field/King County International Seattle 745
38 Lehigh Valley International Allentown, Pa. 689
39 San Diego International San Diego 635
40 Vancouver International Vancouver, British Columbia 619
41 Piedmont Triad International Greensboro, N.C. 607
42 Charlotte/Douglas International Charlotte, N.C. 604
43 General Mitchell International Milwaukee 603
44 Laredo International Laredo, Texas 588
45 Kansas City International Kansas City, Mo. 571
46 Mexico City International Mexico City 566
47 Albuquerque International Sunport Albuquerque, N.M. 563
48 Reno/Tahoe International Reno, Nev. 553
49 Austin-Bergstrom International Austin, Texas 548
50 El Paso International El Paso, Texas 525
51 Rafael Hernandez Aguadilla, Puerto Rico 523
52 Raleigh-Durham International Raleigh, N.C. 503
53 Richmond International Highland Springs, Va. 500
54 Manchester-Boston Regional Manchester, N.H. 490
55 Spokane International Spokane, Wash. 470
56 Pittsburgh International Pittsburgh 470
57 Washington Dulles International Dulles, Va. 458
58 Fort Lauderdale/Hollywood International Fort Lauderdale, Fla. 458
59 Sacramento Mather Sacramento, Calif. 441
60 Huntsville International-Carl T. Jones Field Huntsville, Ala. 420
61 Jacksonville International Jacksonville, Fla. 415
62 Eppley Airfield Omaha, Neb. 407
63 Columbia Metropolitan Columbia, S.C. 403
64 Cleveland-Hopkins International Cleveland 382
65 Des Moines International Des Moines, Iowa 379
66 McCarran International Las Vegas 371
67 Sacramento International Sacramento, Calif. 369
68 Lubbock Preston Smith Lubbock, Texas 364
69 Harrisburg International Harrisburg, Pa. 363
70 Joe Foss Field Sioux Falls, S.D. 358
71 Louis Armstrong New Orleans Metairie, La. 357
72 Tulsa International Tulsa, Okla. 354
73 Billings Logan International Billings, Mont. 349
74 St. Louis Lambert International St. Louis 347
75 Greenville Spartanburg Greer, S.C. 344
76 Boise Air Terminal/Gowen Field Boise, Idaho 341
77 Stockton Metropolitan Stockton, Calif. 332
78 Syracuse Hancock International Syracuse, N.Y. 325
79 Charleston AFB/International Charleston, S.C. 309
80 Valley International Harlingen, Texas 300
81 The Eastern Iowa Cedar Rapids, Iowa 299
82 Nashville International Nashville, Tenn. 292
83 Shreveport Regional Shreveport, La. 288
84 Ellison Onizuka Kona International at Keahole Kailua Kona, Hawaii 285
85 Buffalo Niagara International Buffalo, N.Y. 284
86 McGhee Tyson Alcoa, Tenn. 275
87 Kahului Kahului, Hawaii 267
88 Greater Rochester International Rochester, N.Y. 254
89 Norman Y. Mineta San Jose San Jose, Calif. 250
90 Hector International Fargo, N.D. 248
91 Norfolk International Norfolk, Va. 246
92 Will Rogers World Oklahoma City 240
93 Snohomish County/Paine Field Everett, Wash. 234
94 Gerald R. Ford International Grand Rapids, Mich. 227
95 Montréal-Pierre Elliott Trudeau International Montreal 221
96 Kelly Field San Antonio 218
97 John C. Munro Hamilton International Hamilton, Ontario 216
98 Stewart International New Windsor, N.Y. 210
99 Wichita Dwight D. Eisenhower Wichita, Kan. 209
100 Hilo International Hilo, Hawaii 198