Drones are one of the hottest technologies in the market today as of spring 2015. They are inexpensive, simple, and efficient, and have begun to shape the world today.  As the role of drones in society becomes more commonplace, they will change the way we experience the retail industry by delivering our products with blazing speed at a fraction of the cost.


Jeff Bezos, the CEO of Amazon, predicts his Amazon Prime Air service will deliver packages to your door in 30 minutes or less in the next four to five years on the backs of automated drones (Welch, 2015).  A drone is a powered unmanned aerial vehicle.  The term drone has been used in media cycles and carries heavy connotations such as military application and drug smuggling.  The term UAS will be used in this article instead of the term drone because it is a more technically specific term with less connotation. The Federal Aviation Administration defines an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS) as an unmanned aircraft and all the support equipment (Unmanned, 2015).  UAS’s aren’t just for military use, they will serve many more purposes including retail delivery.  As the applications of the UAS expand, Electrical and Computer Engineers will be needed to develop the technology necessary for this to become a reality.  The role of UAS’s in retail delivery will change the entire retail experience for the consumer of tomorrow.

What exactly is an Unmanned Aerial System (UAS)?

The Unmanned Aircraft (UA) consists of the actual aircraft itself along with the means of control.  This can be a pilot on the ground controlling the craft via a radio link, an on board computer which controls the flight of the craft, or some combination of the two.  The UA can be any and all flavor of aircraft including well-known traditional fixed wing designs, swept wing designs, helicopters (1+ rotor), quad copters (4 rotors), hexacopters (6 rotors), octocopters (8 rotors), tail sitting aircraft, and seaplanes.  UAs vary in size the smallest of which fit in the palm of your hand and the largest of which have wing spans over 100 feet.

The support systems of the UAS consist of communication links, data links, telemetry systems, and navigation systems.  Communication links of UAS’s can be as simple as a one or more channel radio links as is the case with model aircraft.  Communication links utilized by military UAS’s are far more complex as they utilize powerful antenna sending electromagnetic waves through communication satellites that relay the information to UA’s around the globe almost instantaneously.  Data links are used to send flight controls, real time measurements and other information from the ground station to the UA and back in a two-way secure communication channel.  Real time measurements such as aircraft speed, aircraft altitude, and external temperature, among others in a nearly endless list can be sent back to the ground station to be processed.  The navigation systems of UAS’s also vary quite a bit in complexity from simply a line of sight visual of a controller pilot to a highly complex network of triangulating global satellites, known as the Global Positioning System (GPS) (Cuadra & Whitlock, 2015).


Figure 1

Controlling a UAS with remote control by maintaining line of sight. Source: Howard, derived from 2015.


Figure 2

A simplified example of remote control of a military UAS. Source: Howard, derived from 2015.

Arguably longer than that of manned flight, UAS’s have a rich history that has indelibly impacted the world starting when balloons were launched packed with explosives in 1849 (Holman, 2015).  Conventional UAS’s began at the tail end of WWI, with the Sperry Aerial torpedo which used radio control to drop bombs on the enemy.  Although the Sperry was not launched in earnest before the end of the war, it signified the start of a new era in warfare, dominated by cutting edge electronics.  Development of the warfighter UAS continued into the 70s and 80s where the Israeli Scout and Searcher provided the first real-time reconnaissance in modern-day warfare.  Today’s cutting edge UAS’s include the US military’s predator, with flight times of upwards of 16 hours and 450 mile range UAS’s will continue to expand their roles in warfare reconnaissance and directed air strikes driven by new development in technology (Krock, 2015).

The modern UAS has many uses in addition to its well-publicized military applications. Currently deployed military application of UAS’s consist of high-flying, high-efficiency precision bombers and reconnaissance aircraft which don’t risk the life of a human pilot.  Future development of UAS’s for military application includes ultra-small aircraft the size of insects used to gain previously inaccessible intelligence on the enemies of tomorrow.  Amateur hobbyists perform daring aerial acrobatics using remotely controlled UAS’s. Higher end remotely controlled UAS’s can shoot professional quality HD video from a unique aerial perspective on a low budget.  The UAS has also begun to be used by professionals in industry as a cheap way to monitor crops or document real estate assets (FAA, 2015).  In the retail industry the UAS is poised to change the way humans buy and sell by allowing faster, cheaper, and safer delivery of products. UAS’s have already had a huge impact on today’s society but their impact in the future will be far greater.

The Role of Electrical and Computer Engineers (ECE’s)  

Since the beginning of controlled unmanned flight, Electrical and Computer Engineers have played an integral role in the production and development of UAS’s.  The advent of technologies such as the lithium ion battery will ease the transition of the UAS from established uses in the military to retail delivery.  Many new algorithms and technologies for collision avoidance will need to be developed to ensure the safe and secure retail delivery of tomorrow. The role of ECE’s in developing the technology for the UAS has only just begun, and further development will help shape the world in the months and years to come.

Retail UAS’s have become feasible mainly due to the improvement of their power systems.  UAS’s currently in development are electrically powered by new energy efficient lithium ion batteries.  Lithium, when used in batteries, has the highest energy density of all metals, making it the optimal choice for high performance batteries.  Lithium is highly unstable, so lithium batteries become extremely dangerous during the recharging process.  In order to solve this problem lithium ions instead of lithium metal in the batteries.  While lithium ions have a slightly lower energy density than lithium metal, they are much safer making them ideal for portable batteries.  Before the batteries became a reality, there was one major hurdle left, the cathode, which the source of the energy in every battery.  In 1980, John B. Goodenough came up with the beating heart to every modern lithium ion battery, the cobalt-oxide cathode.  The path was now clear for Sony to successfully commercialize the lithium ion battery in 1991. The advent of lithium ion batteries by ECE’s have allowed the size of UAS’s to become small enough to carefully navigate confined spaces yet powerful enough to move heavy merchandise for retail delivery (LeVine, 2015).  The market has a huge demand for lighter, cheaper, more powerful batteries not only in retail but in many other sectors.  As a result, ECE’s will continue to push the limits of current battery technology and explore alternative energy sources for years to come.

Retail UAS’s would need to develop highly sophisticated collision avoidance systems to prevent accidents when delivering merchandise. The collision avoidance system would need to avoid colliding with stationary objects such as telephone poles, buildings and houses along with moving objects such as people, birds, and other aircraft.  The retail delivery UAS’s of tomorrow will need to make split second decisions using algorithms developed by engineers based on sensors created by ECE’s.  This technology has already begun to be implemented by ECE’s as existing Radar technology could be easily implemented to avoid stationary objects.  Lidar, or light radar, can be used to more easily detect a wide range of nonmetallic objects.  Infrared cameras could be used to detect heat emitting objects such as birds, humans, and other vehicles even in adverse weather conditions.  Visual cameras could also help identify and avoid collisions and provide an accurate account of the flight if needed.  Collision detection is already being perfected by ECE’s at Google who have developed self-driving cars using technologies such as visual cameras and radar.  Further work would need to be done by ECE’s in order to perfect the technique for aerial collision avoidance.

Figure 3 shows a simplified example of remote control of a military UAS: (a) Quadcopter and flying object on path toward collision (b) Quadcopter using radar to search its environment (c) Quadcopter detecting the location and speed of flying object using its radar return (d) Quadcopter performing evasive maneuver to avoid flying object (e) Quadcopter and flying object continue towards destination having successfully avoided collision


Figure 3

(a) Quadcopter and flying object on path toward collision (b) Quadcopter using radar to search its environment (c) Quadcopter detecting the location and speed of flying object using its radar return (d) Quadcopter performing evasive maneuver to avoid flying object (e) Quadcopter and flying object continue towards destination having successfully avoided collision Source: Howard, derived from 2015.

ECE’s have been intimately involved in the development of UAS’s since their wide scale adoption around the end of WWI.  UAS’s have greatly expanded their functionality as ECE’s have further developed the technology that makes them work.  As the demand for UAS’s increases in the coming years, ECE’s will be pressured to develop ever more sophisticated electronics to expand the role of UAS’s in the future.

How does a UAS work?

When the human pilot is removed from the cockpit it becomes necessary to develop a highly complicated navigation system.  The navigation system will rely both on GPS coordinates as well as cameras collecting real time data as has been implemented by remote control hobbyists.  Optimal flight paths will be calculated preflight in order to minimize the risk of colliding with other aircraft as well as minimize the distance of delivery.  In the event of a navigation system failure, sophisticated backup plans need to be developed to ensure the safety of the general public.  The remote controlled UAS hobbyist community has already developed emergency features such as returning to a specific GPS location in the event of lost communications or dangerously low battery levels.  Hobbyists have also implemented completely automated predetermined flight paths based on GPS positions. Retail drones will need to be able to follow predetermined flight paths, but be able to immediately deviate in an emergency situation such as the loss of a rotor or a surprising event like crossing paths with a bird in flight.  These systems will need to be robust enough to work in all weather conditions, climates, and air traffic levels.  The development of safe collision detection systems will be paramount if the delivery UAS is to be successfully implemented.

In the United States the Federal Aviation Administration currently regulates the flight of all commercial, personal, and public UAS’s.  Current FAA regulation allows most amateur UAS flights as long as the following guidelines are followed: no flight within 5 miles of an airport, no flight above 400 ft., and no reckless endangerment.  The FAA also regulates permits for UAS’s of all government run organizations.  All other entities fall under the civil category which is highly regulated.  Civil use of UAS’s has been restricted to permits only for experimental aircraft until recently.  A few exceptions have been made by the FAA such as allowing farmers to monitor their crops and real estate agents to photograph property.  While current FAA regulation of retail drones is restrictive, recent FAA exceptions indicate that retail drones may become commonplace in the skies in the near future.

One advantage of unmanned aerial vehicles is that aircraft designers don’t need to account for the pilots biological limitations when in the cockpit.  This opens the door for aircraft design that was not feasible in the past such as the tail-sitter design. This aircraft is named because it takes off and land vertically (VTOL) and therefore sits on its tail when grounded.  When the aircraft is in motion, the orientation is shifted 90 degrees and flies horizontally for more efficient aerodynamics.  This design was not practical with an onboard human pilot because the quick changes in orientation were extremely difficult to overcome.  The tail-sitter has a few key advantages for retail delivery.  For one its VTOL eliminates the need for expensive runways. Its more efficient horizontal flight means cheaper shipping costs and larger payloads. The ability of the tail-sitter to hover is also a key advantage in retail delivery. Once the destination is reached, the aircraft hovers, and lowers its payload to the customer using a rope system, eliminating the need to land and take off again which burns expensive fuel.  Google is currently developing a tail sitting retail delivery UAS under the name Project Wing.

The development of multi-rotor UAS copters has also begun. Human driven and unmanned helicopters have seen extensive use in the 21st century, but copters with more rotors are better suited to retail delivery development.  The attachment of additional rotors are usually arranged in symmetrical patters of either four, six, or eight total rotors.  These provide a few key advantages for retail delivery UAS’s.  The addiction of extra motors doesn’t provide a more stable or efficient flight, but it does provide a craft that is more easily controlled using software and is significantly cheaper to develop.  As a result, a design of a multi-rotor aircraft could see success as a retail delivery system.  Furthermore, the advent of smaller UAS’s mean more lift is generated per unit of weight than larger aircraft.  As a result, the less powerful but cheaper and much simpler battery system can be used to power the craft (Gao, 2015).  Companies currently developing multi-rotor copter designs include Amazon and UPS.

The advent of UAS’s has allowed aircraft designers the ability to experiment with aircraft designs that weren’t feasible with a human pilot.  This allows UAS’s to become extremely small as the control systems fit on circuit boards which continue to decrease in size.  A software piloted craft can also operate more complicated control systems than humans or even computer-assisted humans.  The loss of the human pilot allows for such ground breaking design as the multi-rotor copter and the tail-sitter which were previously inaccessible.

Future Impact of the UAS

Currently the largest impediment to the development of UAS retail delivery technology has been safety concerns.  The FAA has not sanctioned wide scale commercialized operation of UAS’s because of this.  As of early 2015, the FAA has granted 14 special exemptions to 13 commercial companies (FAA, 2015).  It may take years for the FAA to sort through the rules and regulations which must be implemented in order to ensure the safety of the public but the process is already underway.  UAS’s can crash, and fall from the sky causing potentially expensive damage to property or worse public health.  These safety concerns open up a myriad of never before considered liability questions.

Creating an interconnected retail delivery system also opens a host of hacking vulnerabilities.  Groups or individuals with malicious intent could hijack large numbers of retail drones in order to steal product or commit more heinous crimes. Public privacy is also a huge obstacle to overcome before retail drones become a reality.  UAS delivery drones will most likely be equipped with highly powerful cameras, capable of capturing and storing information intended to remain private.  There are still a multitude of issues that could derail the production of retail delivery UAS’s.

While retail delivery UAS’s have the potential to change the retail industry entirely, this could have unintended detrimental effects on the lives of humans.  The global delivery industry has over $200 billion in revenue (Couriers, 2015) about half of which comes from the United States (Global, 2015).  If this industry suddenly became flooded with UAS’s, the need for human workers in this industry would plummet.  Jobs like truck drivers, mailmen, and delivery couriers would disappear or be greatly diminished in an accelerated timespan.  This would displace a great number of people by eliminating their livelihood without creating comparable jobs.

Current market conditions demand a faster, cheaper, more efficient retail delivery system.  UAS’s are poised to fill this void, and completely change the retail industry in the process.  As UAS’s become faster, the old paradigm of driving to stores to pick up items needed immediately quickly becomes obsolete.  If UAS technology is implemented safely, supermarkets could deliver food before it spoils.  This would allow food delivery to occur more easily in remote areas and in bad weather.  UAS retail delivery systems could allow clothing stores to send clothes to your doorstep to try on in 30 min or less, eliminating the need for huge energy consuming shopping malls and gas guzzling cars in the process.  Electronics companies could send you the latest and greatest phones for you to test out as the UAS sits patiently on your doorstep for its return trip.  Similarly most other retail stores could eliminate physical shopping centers altogether, clearing up road congestion, reducing car accidents, and eliminating wasteful energy consumption practices while making retail delivery faster, safer, and more efficient.  As the development of more and more UAS delivery systems pushes the technological envelop, the pressure from companies like Amazon and Google will force the FAA into creating safe and fair regulations for the advent of the UAS retail delivery system.

The retail industry is poised to take the next step forward in commercializing the UAS.  The retail industry has come to rely on planes, trains, and trucks to deliver merchandise to its customer for decades, but the UAS is positioned to completely overhaul this archaic system.  The technology behind the UAS will determine the impact it will have on society.  The driving force behind this technological development will be the Electrical and Computer Engineers of tomorrow.  The transition won’t be an easy one, with privacy and safety concerns poised to eliminate the prospect of commercialized UAS’s at any point. UAS’s are so desirable to retail companies because they can significantly cut costs of delivery by eliminating human delivery people while also making a faster delivery. They have the potential to change the way humans experience the retail industry and make life just a little bit easier in the process.


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See also (Links to other SHP articles):

  • Cunningham, Conner: UAV’s in the military
  • Slinger, Kyle: Batteries for Renewable Energy