A boom in online purchases in the US this year meant that at the height of the holiday shipping season an estimated 3.5 million packages a day picked up by FedEx, UPS, Amazon, the US Postal Service and other shippers didn't reach their destinations on time, according to ShipMatrix.
"Our entire industry is underwater because of the demand [for deliveries]," said Satish Jindel, president of the software company that helps retailers and others track shipments and collects data on millions of packages sent from more than 100,000 locations in the US.
Though it will be some time before millions of packages are delivered via drone, the US has moved one step closer with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) on Monday issuing new rules allowing small drones to fly over people and at night.
"They get us closer to the day when we will more routinely see drone operations such as the delivery of packages," said FAA Administrator Steve Dickson in a statement. "The new rules make way for the further integration of drones into our airspace by addressing safety and security concerns."
The rules will take effect in about two months. They finalize proposed rules issued last year. They will require that drones used at night include flashing lights that can be seen up to 3 miles away.
Operators will need special training. Small drones flying over people can't have rotating parts capable of cutting skin. All drones that must be registered with the FAA will be required to have equipment that broadcasts their identification, location and control station or be operated at FAA-recognized areas.
More than 1.7 million drones are registered in the US, according to the Transportation Department, with about 110,000 commercial drones operating. That number is expected to increase to about 450,000 in 2022.
In China, companies are increasing efforts to apply drones to logistics and delivery activities as part of a broader drive to enhance logistics efficiency and reduce delivery costs in rural areas, as well as gain an edge in the competitive marketplace.
JD Logistics, a unit of Chinese e-commerce giant JD, has been using drones for deliveries in China in the past few years. During the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic in China, the company completed delivery of daily necessities via drone to Baiyang Lake, Hebei province. It took the drone just a few minutes to fly about 2 kilometers over the lake to a village on the other side.
In the US, drone usage has grown rapidly in some industries. They are being used commercially for photography and film, to inspect crops, buildings, bridges and railroads. First responders use them in search-and-rescue operations and to survey damage from fires, floods, hurricanes, tornadoes and other disasters. However, the widespread use of drones for delivery hasn't happened.
In August, Amazon's drone service received federal approval allowing the retailer to begin testing commercial deliveries through its drone fleet. Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos predicted in 2015 that his company would use drones to deliver goods to customers' doorsteps within five years.
United Parcel Service said last year that it received approval to operate a nationwide fleet of drones and has already made hundreds of deliveries on a hospital campus in North Carolina.
Last year, Alphabet's Wing, a sister unit of search engine Google, was the first company to get US air-carrier certification for a single-pilot drone operation. There have been several tests and limited uses.
Wing said its drones have flown more than 70,000 test flights and made more than 3,000 deliveries to customers in Australia. The company said that deliveries by drones can mean medicine and food can arrive sooner, and that they can reduce traffic and emissions.
Walmart Inc said in September it would run a pilot project for delivery of grocery and household products through automated drones but acknowledged "it will be some time before we see millions of packages delivered via drone".