In town to tout the opening of FedEx Ground’s huge new distribution hub in Middletown, the company’s president and CEO said he is skeptical of large-scale drone delivery.
Henry J. Maier, who has spent 30 years at FedEx Ground including the last five as head of the company, said drone use should be pursued for dangerous work and specialized applications, but not as a primary package delivery method.
“The problem with drones is the following: they’re a single-use,” Maier said. “A year ago on Cyber Monday, the Monday after Thanksgiving, FedEx Ground handled about 22 million packages, that’s a lot of drones in the air. I’m not sure that they’re really practical because of that.”
He said drones are already used within the company for tasks like inventory, where they can substitute for putting a worker in a scissor lift.
Using them for pipeline inspections or to cart medical supplies to remote areas makes sense, he said, but door-to-door package delivery is less likely to be one of the best drone functions.
“I don’t think they have an application in the package industry as we know it, but I think they’re highly valuable to do things that would put human life at risk,” Maier said. “I think we’re quite a ways away from using them to drop a package on your front porch.”
Maier spoke to the Middlesex County Chamber of Commerce early Friday morning before FedEx cut the ribbon on its 600,000-square-foot distribution hub.
The center is part of a major national expansion for FedEx Ground in response to the growth of e-commerce. The company said the Middletown facility will employ 650 people at its full strength, with more than 200 extra people needed during the busy holiday season.
Liberty Bank CEO Chandler Howard prompted the drone delivery discussion with a question during Maier’s speech.
“I was curious about whether we’d ever see packages dropped off by a drone rather than a truck and employee,” Howard said. “I was just really curious about what their thinking was. They’re the experts on transportation and delivery.”
Officials have welcomed FedEx and the expected economic activity it will encourage throughout the region. Middletown lost a huge chunk of tax revenue when Aetna closed and demolished its office park on the property in 2011.
While Aetna’s building at 1.4 million square feet had more space and more employees, FedEx’s building has a much larger footprint.
The cavernous building sorts packages in just eight minutes from the time they arrive to the time they’re ready to head to their next destination further on in the delivery process.
Automation plays a huge role in how FedEx Ground uses the 47,851 feet — more than 9 miles — of conveyor belts, chutes and tubes inside the Middletown facility.
But the size of the company’s shipments around the country make drone delivery less effective than its current methods, Maier said.
Amazon, Google and other companies have attracted attention with promises of drone delivery that will allow an order to be delivered just 30 minutes after it’s placed.
The possibilities of cheaper, quicker delivery, particularly in rural areas, has a slew of companies and startups pursuing drone delivery programs.
Companies are also pursuing autonomous vehicle programs that could make delivery more efficient.
“It looks like science fiction, but it’s real. One day, seeing Prime Air vehicles will be as normal as seeing mail trucks on the road,” according to information on Amazon’s website. “Amazon Prime Air is a service that will deliver packages up to five pounds in 30 minutes or less using small drones.”
The Federal Aviation Administration recently selected 10 test programs for drone flights under the Unmanned Aircraft System Integration Pilot Program. They range in function from public safety, agriculture, mosquito control, medical delivery, commerce and pipeline inspection.
FAA regulations permit the use of drones for transportation, but require operators to maintain a line of sight with the drone and limit the total weight and payload to 55 pounds.
A presidential memorandum established the test program last year to explore opportunities for better economic efficiency and job creation.
“It shall be the policy of the United States to promote the safe operation of unmanned aircraft systems (UAS) and enable the development of UAS technologies for use in agriculture, commerce, emergency management, human transportation, and other sectors,” the memo said.
A UPS spokesman said Friday that drone delivery won’t be replacing that company’s brown vans anytime soon, either.
They have played a critical role in humanitarian aid in places like Rwanda, and have been used effectively to survey damage after natural disasters, said UPS spokesman Kyle Peterson. They are also used inside and outside of company facilities for inventory and other purposes.
“We think drones could provide network improvements and efficiencies, but it’s still in the future,” Peterson said. “We don’t think drones would ever replace our uniformed service providers.”
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