In 2013, shortly before Christmas, Amazon.com released a video depicting its plans to speed packages to their destinations using small drones. Some commentators said it was just a publicity stunt. But the notion began to seem less far-fetched when Google revealed its own drone-based delivery effort in 2014, something it calls Project Wing. And in the early months of 2016, DHL actually integrated drones into its logistics network, albeit in an extremely limited way—delivering packages to a single mountaintop in Germany that is difficult to access by car in winter.
“It started to get momentum after serious players came in,” says Parimal Kopardekar, NASA’s senior engineer for air transportation systems, who has been researching ways to work these buzzing little contraptions into an air traffic control system created for full-size aircraft. “We need to accommodate drones.”