New DroneUp Ecosystem marks major shift for drone delivery operations

Drone delivery in 2024 is hardly anything like the vision Jeff Bezos gave the world when he promised drone delivery on national TV back in 2013. A big reason? Lack of scalability. But a slew of major changes by drone delivery companies marks a clear sign in addressing how to improve the scalability of drone delivery operations. Among the latest? The new autonomous Ecosystem technology, created by DroneUp.

DroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company landing in DBX net with packageDroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company landing in DBX net with package
Photo courtesy of DroneUp

Founded in 2016 and headquartered in Virginia Beach, Virginia, DroneUp has been one of the smaller players in the American drone delivery space — albeit still a mighty player. Among its biggest clients? Walmart, which invested in DroneUp back in 2021.

And today, DroneUp revealed its new Ecosystem platform, which marks a huge shift in the way the company deliveries packages from retailers and restaurants. The focus of Ecosystem is scalability and affordability.

In short, Ecosystem is a series of centralized operations stations spread throughout an area. Each of those operations stations is autonomous in itself, so the only task at hands for humans is having the client drop off the actual package at the station — and customers subsequently picking up their package at another station once the drone has flown between the two.

It’s a huge departure from models at competitors like Wing or Zipline that emphasize drones flying directly to suburban, single-family residences.

DroneUp says the delivery model should bring down the costs of drone delivery.

“Retailers and quick service restaurants want us to have a clear glide path that brings the cost of drone delivery lower than currently being offered by human-based delivery while maintaining high safety and dependability levels,” said Tom Walker, CEO of DroneUp. “With our autonomous ecosystem, we are able to meet those customer demands and provide a solution capable of doing millions of deliveries every day.”

Here’s a deeper dive into how the new DroneUp Ecosystem works:

Inside the DroneUp Ecosystem

The most obvious departure from traditional drone delivery systems that you’ll see in the DroneUp Ecosystem? That huge ground station unit. Consider it a sort of airport for drone deliveries.

DroneUp calls it a Destination Box (DBX). These temperature-controlled units can stand on their own, and function as one of the centralized loading points that could be placed throughout a community. The units are large enough to hold up to 30 packages at a time, depending on their size.

DroneUp Ecosystem DBX featuring netDroneUp Ecosystem DBX featuring net
Photo courtesy of DroneUp

A net sits on top of the box unit, where the drone lands.

The DBXs are vendor-agnostic. So in theory, Walmart could load a package of consumer goods in the same DBX that a local hospital loads medical products into. And it seems as though they’d be placed in relatively communal areas, just as mailboxes are. In a courtesy photo provided by DroneUp, the DBX sits in a large parking lot over two parking spaces.

DroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company DBXDroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company DBX
Photo courtesy of DroneUp

Of course, the DBX machines go two ways, meaning that consumers could also head to one to pickup a package, similar to the Amazon Locker model. Amazon Lockers are useful for people who can’t receive packages at home. That includes someone in a multi-unit building with low security, or someone in a home who just doesn’t want packages stolen off their porch. With Amazon Lockers, people can retrieve packages at the Locker locations, (like some Whole Foods stores) through a self-service model. This is a similar system.

And that’s not all the DBX can do. They also incorporate drone charging capabilities to extend the reach of each delivery and eliminate the need for battery swaps.

Other fresh DroneUp product launches

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Photo courtesy of DroneUp

The new DBX is the most notable launch, but DroneUp has been working on some other products.

For starters, DroneUp gave its actual drones an overhaul. That includes new delivery mechanisms and interfaces to operate with the ground infrastructure. The delivery mechanism at hand is a claw-like package grasper that can perform aerial drops or winch up to 120 ft. 

The drone also has a neat, internal package storage system to protect goods from rain, snow and even too-much sun. Engineers also worked to reduce the drone’s noise, while allowing the drones to carry larger, heavier boxes than before.

DroneUp’s drones can fly up to 60 mph over a range of 30-miles, meaning a drone in theory could fly as far out as 15 miles from the nearest DBX. That’s a surprisingly wide range, considering San Francisco is roughly 7 miles wide and 7 miles long. In theory, a drone with that sort of range and distance capabilities woud be able to do laps around a city like San Francisco in size.

Then, there’s the software. DroneUp launched a new operation system that incorporates flight control, navigation, airspace management, logistics management and safety-enhancing tools. That includes ‘detect-and-avoid’ technology. The system is automated enough that a single person can monitor many drones.

Together, those products comprise a patented, proprietary technology platform.

Is this the Drone Delivery 2.0 era?

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Wing’s Autoloader

The drone delivery landscape has experienced a growth spurt over the past year. This time last year, Wing (the sister company of Google) launched a system called the Wing Delivery Network. The decentralized, automated system better supports high-volume drone delivery, largely thanks to a new piece of harder called Autoloader.

Similarly to DroneUp’s DBX, Autoloader sits outside in a parking space. The person delivering the package loads it into the Autoloader. From there, the Wing Delivery Network ‘talks’ to a drone, telling it to fly over and retrieve a package, and from there the drone delivers it to a customer (typically their own home).

Zipline Picnic DroneZipline Picnic Drone
Part of Zipline’s new P2 system

Shortly after, Zipline launched its P2 system, which is a two-part drone: the primary aircraft for long-distance travel and a detachable “delivery droid.”

Here’s how it works: The primary drone carries the droid to a designated landing zone near the delivery location. The droid then detaches, lowers itself via a tether, and gently deposits the package at the customer’s doorstep.

Whether the Zipline P2, Wing Autoloader or the new DroneUp Ecosystem, all represent a significant sign of growth for the drone delivery industry. In a sign of maturity, these drone delivery companies are tailoring solutions to address specific needs.

But will these new solutions be enough to make drone delivery truly succeed?

The DroneUp Ecosystem: will it work?

DroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company flying aircraft with packageDroneUp Ecosystem drone delivery Virginia American company flying aircraft with package
Photo courtesy of DroneUp

The world’s biggest drone delivery company, Zipline, and its number two competitor, Wing, seem to be all about direct home delivery. And while direct home delivery may offer the ultimate convenience and speed, safety concerns, payload limitations and the sheer matter of finding a suitable drop point can make it a complex challenge. Centralized stations like the DroneUp Ecosystem might provide a more feasible near-term solution, with lower infrastructure costs.

Here are a few reasons why a centralized station delivery model is great:

  • Feasibility: Delivering to designated zones reduces the complexity of individual rooftop/porch/backyard landings.
  • Efficiency: Centralized stations that serve as launch and recovery points may improve maintenance efficiency.
  • Lower infrastructure costs: There’s no need to equip every home with a landing zone. Companies would focus investment on stations strategically placed throughout neighborhoods.
  • Fewer privacy concerns: The constant buzz of drones overhead could be unsettling for some. Additionally, ensuring secure drop-off locations within customer yards might require creative solutions. A centralized delivery point could be positioned away from anti-drone neighbors.

But, it could bring some fresh challenges, including:

  • Slower delivery: The “last mile” delivery from the station would require additional vehicles or personnel, adding time compared to direct home delivery via drone.
  • Increased complexity: Managing a network of stations and coordinating deliveries adds logistical complexity if providers need to now add a human driver, biker or walker to go the final mile, especially compared to a purely drone-based system.
DroneUp delivery drone with snacks from WalmartDroneUp delivery drone with snacks from Walmart
Photo courtesy of DroneUp

The DroneUp Ecosystem is set to launch sometime later in 2024. At launch, it’ll only be available to elected partners as part of its Early Partners Program.

Though, DroneUp does seem open to adding new partnerships and potentially even offering live demos. The company told The Drone Girl that you can call 877-601-1860 for partnership inquiries.

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