We’re much closer than you think to a revolution in drone shipping

December 9, 2013

The X-48C, a blended-wing body craft that was jointly tested by Boeing and NASA. (NASA / Carla Thomas)

Amazon.com's Prime Air service promises to get goodies to your door in less than 30 minutes. But what puts the company in a position to make that offer is a responsive supply chain. Already, under its two-day shipping policy, Amazon has to make sure each of its warehouses has enough of the items everyone wants, or else a sufficiently robust backhaul option that can fulfill requests on short notice.

Either way, Amazon is hugely dependent on air cargo. And it's the part of the supply chain that customers don't interact with that stands to be affected most by drone technology.

FedEx chief executive Fred Smith has been discussing the use of unmanned aircraft in backhaul shipping for some time. Rather than the flying cigars of today, though, Smith thinks future cargo planes will favor a "blended wing" design that looks like a cross between a traditional airliner and a stealth bomber.

Unlike the fragile-looking copter drones that are currently available to hobbyists (and that Amazon sees as the key to Prime Air), unmanned blended wings are the object of intense research by massive aerospace companies with real money to spend. Boeing's X-48C is a blended-wing unmanned aircraft that concluded an eight-month flight-test program with NASA earlier this year. That's being followed by research into a larger version of the X-48 that's capable of transonic speeds.

Planes like these would have much more room for goods than current aircraft, making air freight more economical. Even today's jetliners mostly run themselves, with human pilots stepping in only to perform takeoff and landing. A shift to unmanned aircraft would still require pilots in the short term to fly planes remotely; but in the long run, this technology could become a way for FedEx to eliminate many of its pilots.

Asked about the potential for a fully autonomous fleet, a FedEx spokesperson said the company "support[s] our pilots completely."

Meanwhile, UPS is reportedly weighing a service to compete with Prime Air. A company spokesperson, however, wouldn't discuss its backhaul operations.

"We're always looking for the best technology," said UPS' Kara Ross.

The secrecy is hardly a surprise. Cargo companies are waiting for the Federal Aviation Administration to finish drafting a set of guidelines for integrating commercial drones into the nation's airspace, a process that isn't expected to wrap for several years. But that isn't keeping companies from making as many preparations as they can.

Disclosure: Amazon.com chief executive and founder Jeffrey P. Bezos owns The Washington Post.

Brian Fung covers technology for The Washington Post.
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