Flight of Fancy (Revisited)

[This was originally published in June 2003, but with Amazon’s recent drone patent filing, we thought you’d enjoy the look back.]

Back in 2023 Paul MacCready’s famous company, Aerovironment Corp., brought to market an Unmanned Aerial Vehicle (UAV) that revolutionized expedited and emergency transport services in America. That was seven years ago. Since then, the UAV 2030 AllCargo has captured 38 percent of the critical shipment market.

Soaring above traffic, tolls, and crumbling infrastructure, the unmanned cargo plane hits speeds of 170 mph, and carries time-sensitive shipments weighing about 300 pounds. Guided by the latest generation GPS, the UAV 2030 AC sports the new UPS logo on its " tail." It has an upgraded collision avoidance inertial guidance system because the skies grow more crowded every month.

Shippers and consignees tap into real-time 3D telemetry and video feed if they need to track progress and make certain their critical shipments are on the right route and schedule.

The UAV AllCargo bird reaches its destination, hovers on station, and announces its arrival. Not that it needs to, as the DC manager and his repair team anxiously await the replacement armature and control module they need to get the facility’s high-speed pick/pack and sortation system up and running again. The past few hours of downtime have been pure hell as the DC manager’s blood pressure inversely tracked the falloff in inventory turns. Who would have guessed his on-hand replacement was bad as well?

But all that will soon be behind him as the hovering bird drops its shock- resistant pod in the facility’s back parking lot. Because the DC manager is not a regular user of the critical-shipment service, he does not have the UPS ultrafoam LZ to cushion the part. Instead he stacks empty cardboard boxes, hoping the shock-resistant pod performs to specs on the one-foot drop height.

The pod drops—bull’s eye—and the DC manager’s team scrambles to get the spare part. He watches as the high-tensile spun Kevlar and titanium bird breaks up on cue and falls to the ground. It’s done that way to make it easier for his dock crew to pack the bird up in the included Tyvek package, add bubble foam, slap a UPS GroundTrac label on it and await the morning pickup.

FedEx offers a similar service, except that upon delivery you flip some switches and the UAV lifts off vertically and flies back to the nearest terminal, servicing a mini hub-and-spoke territory, if you will. UPS, possibly in an effort to keep insurance rates lower, prefers the self-pack and pickup method of return. Different strokes…The DC managers hears that both companies will roll out the service in Europe next month, except for the French EU zone where they refer to the cargo UAVs as " American gnats."

Well you can’t stop progress and the UAV 2030 AllCargo just saved his skin. As the DC manager turns back to his facility he can already hear the high-pitched whine of his conveyors ramping up to speed.

Boy his team is good. He shakes his head in wonder at the technology and ingenuity of what happened in the past eight minutes and wonders aloud, " What will they think of next?"

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