– When you think of a drone,
you probably think of this. (motor buzzing) There’s a new generation of drones that are being built to
fly longer distances, at jet liner elevations,
while carrying huge payloads. And these cargo carrying drones could be coming to an air space near you. (gentle music) Cargo drones could potentially
upend the logistics industry, making deliveries that
are safe, and efficient, and environmentally sustainable, but they can also be a
regulatory nightmare. There’s a reason that giant
companies like Google, and Amazon, and UPS are
pushing ahead with their plans to fill the skies with cargo
carrying drones, money. Morgan Stanley estimates that
autonomous urban aircraft could eventually become a
1.5 trillion dollar industry, by 2040, and that includes everything from vertical takeoff
and landing the aircraft, flying cars, military UAVs,
and yes, delivery drones. Now there are a whole
bunch of delivery drones that are being tested today. But what if you wanna receive
something that’s heavier than an Uber Eats order? Before they can rake in all that cash, drone operators are out to prove that these devices can
deliver a social good, and that’s why so many pilot programs are focused on delivering medicine. Matternet is working with
UPS to deliver blood samples to hospitals in North Carolina. Zipline is flying in medical supplies to remote locations in Rwanda. Swoop Aero is dispensing
vaccines and other medication to tiny islands in the Pacific. All those drones exist today, but what about the ones that
are still under development, the heavy lifters. Let’s call them cargo
drones, drones that are built to fly higher and further
than anything available today, all while carrying really heavy loads. So Sabrewing is working on a prototype that can achieve speeds
of up to 180 knots, and a cruising altitude
as high as 22,000 feet. It’s called Rhaegal, which yes, is one of the dragons
from Game of Thrones. (dragon roaring) Another is called
Nautilus, and it’s working on a 30 foot prototype
that’s about the size and weight of a military predator drone. It’ll be capable of
transporting 700 pounds of cargo a distance of 2500 nautical miles. The company is also
working on a larger scale two ton freighter about
the size of a Boeing 777. (gentle music) Both companies are using
measurements associated with boats because they are being designed to take off and land in the water, and that’s because they probably won’t get the regulatory approval
to fly over populated areas. Now, speaking of Boeing,
the aerospace giant is working on its own heavy duty drone capable of carrying
payloads of 500 pounds. But what kind of work goes
into building a cargo drone? To find out, we visited
the offices of Elroy Air, in San Francisco, to see that company’s autonomous
volt drones for ourselves. Elroy’s CEO, Dave Merrill
talked about the challenge of building an aircraft capable of carrying this kind of weight. – At this scale, there’s a lot
more modeling that goes in, a lot more aerodynamics that goes in. You need more capital, you
need specialized expertise, for testing each building block. So it’s really a different kind of effort than building a smaller drone system. – And Merrill said that while some companies
are retrofitting their drones for autonomous flight, Elroy is building its aircraft to be self flying from day one. They’re being built to
attach and drop cargo as well as take off and land
without any human interaction. – So the aircraft is able to
land, taxi to a cargo pod, pick it up, and then take off again, without needing a person
to come out and load or unload the system. And we did that to save time, so that the aircraft can
just stay always in motion, always being utilized. And they also are designed
for a much longer range. Most delivery drones, people are thinking about the last mile, we think about the last 100 miles. – Elroy envisions its system being used to deliver packages over medium distances, in rural areas, or between
distribution centers. – The benefit of vertical
takeoff and landing is that you have a lot more flexibility in where the system can operate from. So, it can take off and
land from an airport, or a helipad, but also it can
take off from a parking lot, or the rooftop of a parking garage, or even a field. – The company hopes to have
a fleet of autonomous drones in the air, making deliveries by 2020. – I don’t think it’s as
far away as we think, but I do think that companies are betting that some portion of automated flight are going to be moving stuff around that’s not just small packages. – This idea of using drones to move goods between giant warehouses,
is super interesting. But also, it raises some valid concerns about energy consumption. A 2018 study in the journal “Nature” found that electric drones
were way more efficient than trucks, and vans, and cars. – A drone can reduce
greenhouse gas emissions for package delivery in
most areas of the country by a decent amount, and in really low carbon
electricity grids, like out west, and in New York state, it can reduce it by half, or more. – And though the study found
that benefits may be reduced once the electricity used for recharging and warehousing was factored in, drones clearly have less
environmental impact than a one item delivery by car. Today, the big problem is regulation. The unresolved issues
include whether it is safe to allow drones to fly beyond a pilot’s visual line of sight, or to operate at night,
or to fly over people. And to answer these
questions, the FAA created a pilot program to see how
a drone delivery system might look in real life. Wing and Uber are two of
the companies participating, but not Amazon, which is
instead testing its drones with a consortium of European
companies in Belgium. – The tech development
race for urban air mobility is going on right now. The technology, as it
advances, should think through how it’s going to meet
those certifications, and make it safe for everybody. – So whatever set of guidelines the FAA and the private sector come up with, could have huge implications,
not just for cargo drones, but also maybe for the way that we get around in
cities in the future. Urban air mobility is
increasingly a hot pursuit among tech and aerospace companies. As ridiculous as it sounds,
the idea of flying cars is gaining serious traction. People are investing hundreds
of millions of dollars in drone companies, today,
because they believe that they will be more efficient, and better for the environment
than the current system. And that’s making people really nervous. A Pew Research Center survey in 2017 found that 11% of
Americans support drones, while 34% favor some limits on them. But 54% disapprove of drones
flying near residential areas, and they site privacy and
noise as their top concerns. If developers can address these concerns, and build out a network of delivery drones that are quiet, safe and efficient, well, then the sky’s the limit. Like I’m just thinking if I can get a bed, a new bed, delivered to
my apartment, via drone, I mean, it might make
my neighbors nervous, but that could be amazing.