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In-Flight Drone Deliveries Take Off

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As e-commerce sales continue to skyrocket, retailers and delivery companies are looking for ways to expand capacity and trim delivery times. Increasingly, focus is turning to drones.

E-commerce sales in 2016 fell just short of $400 billion, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. And that number is projected to continue to grow by double digits going forward. It’s a dizzying pace that’s also costly. As a result, fulfillment centers are sprouting up everywhere, automation is employed for efficiency, and delivery companies are being pushed to expand their capabilities, as UPS did with its new Saturday service.

As it is with all things retail related, Amazon is right there in the mix. The e-commerce giant is opening a new 60,000-square-foot site for R&D of products like Echo, Kindle and the Fire TV Stick, leaving the company’s current facility to focus on its Prime Air drone development.

The retailer undertook its first successful drone delivery in December, a feat that took just 13 minutes from click to doorstep. Amazon recently received a patent for technology that would allow it to make these deliveries without having to land the devices—a step that burns fuel and opens it up to a host of legal issues. It’s not clear though whether these in-flight drops would occur via parachutes, spring coils or some other mechanism.

Concurrently, IBM is working on technology that will help these retailers extend the range of drone delivery, which is typically limited to about 10 miles. (UPS is trying to solve this problem using its trucks as docking stations.) According to Discover Magazine, IBM’s solution includes a patent for a design that will allow for in-air package transfers. This last-mile solution has yet to be tested though, for that IBM is in search of a commercial partner.

While they search, a couple of Brown University students have set out to delight college students—and snackers—everywhere. The duo has landed a grant to continue research on a drone teethering system that allows objects to be lowered from these unmanned vehicles. The students’ first test included successful delivery of cookies across the quad.

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