North Carolina Town Eyes Drones as Future of Package Delivery

A Flytrex delivery drone

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 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
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3 Louisville International-Standiford Field Louisville, Ky. 13,404
4 Chicago O'Hare International Chicago 10,374
5 Miami International Miami 7,964
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