Alumnus Works to Inspire Drone Delivery Boom

Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) industry alumnus Joseph Marshall (’10) was the fourth guest in Embry-Riddle’s Aviation Outlook webinar series, which features discussions with industry leaders who offer insights on the current state of aviation and the road to recovery. (Photo: Joseph Marshall)

For alumnus Joseph Marshall (’10), no experience in his career thus far has been more memorable than his first internship, at Allegiant Air.

“As a young aviator at the time, it had one of the most profound impacts on my aviation career,” he said in a July 1 Aviation Outlook webinar, the fourth in a series launched by Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in May.

At the time, Marshall wanted to fly commercial aircraft, and at Allegiant, he was given 100 hours of jump seat time. He interfaced with veteran pilots. He explored the operational side of the company and learned the inner-workings of its safety culture.

Nearly a decade later, he now serves as the director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flight Operations at Zipline, which developed the world’s fastest drone and largest autonomous logistics network. Before that, he worked as the worldwide training and standards manager for Amazon Prime Air.

The next free and interactive Aviation Outlook webinar event will feature the married team of Kathy and Dillon Rice, at 6 p.m. (EDT) Tuesday, July 28. Alumna Kathy Rice (’04) is the NASA Kennedy Space Center Weather Officer and a member of the College of Aviation Industry Advisory Board. She is currently the primary Launch Weather Officer for both Kennedy Space Center, including the Space Launch System program and for the Delta IV program. Dillon Rice is the Launch Conductor for United Launch Alliance. He has acted as Launch Conductor since 2015 and began his aerospace career with Boeing in 1999 as an engineer working on the construction of Cape Canaveral’s Space Launch Complex 37 for the Delta IV program.

Marshall, who was recently featured in Lift magazine, still loves manned flight and is a licensed commercial pilot and certified flight instructor — he never intended to pursue unmanned aviation, let alone become a leader in the industry — but by forcing himself into “some really uncomfortable situations” early in his working life, situations that forced him to learn new skills, his comfort zone began to grow. He grew. And he discovered a new passion.

“We’re actually saving lives and making a real impact on society,” Marshall said of his work at Zipline, part of which includes coordinating drone deliveries of vital medical supplies to hospitals in Africa. Whereas deliveries of anti-venom and other lifesaving medications used to take up to six hours, due to a lack of available infrastructure, Zipline’s drone deliveries take only 30-60 minutes. “It’s just incredible to see.”

As part of the company’s pandemic response, they have also added unmanned pickups and deliveries of personal protective equipment (PPE), as well as Covid-19 samples and testing kits, in an effort to protect frontline healthcare workers and identify positive virus cases before they spread.

Marshall counts himself lucky to be part of such an initiative, but he’s aware that he never would be where he is today without an early willingness to experiment.

“Don’t be afraid to put yourself out there,” he told students watching from home. “Find an internship that’s out of your comfort zone. … The more diverse experience you can have is fantastic.”

While unmanned delivery is still in its early stages as an industry, Marshall sees the Covid-19 pandemic as an opportunity to prove the viability of the model, before expanding to urban environments and a much greater scale.

“Covid-19 has been a regulatory and societal forcing function to see how drone applications are rapidly being seen as an effective delivery mechanism, not only for contactless delivery but general convenience,” he said. “The general public is starting to see that it’s practical, and it’s a realistic mode of delivery.”

The next 10 years is going to be the golden age of commercial UAS drone delivery.
Joseph Marshall (’10), director of Unmanned Aircraft Systems (UAS) Flight Operations at Zipline

But there remains plenty of work ahead — namely, in integrating drones into an airspace that has, up until recently in the history of aviation, never had to share the skies with unmanned vehicles.

“There’s always been opposition … but (we) have been breaking down those gates,” he said. “And if we succeed … if everyone succeeds cohesively together as we move forward, it’s just going to open the floodgates.”

That moment will come once advancements in drone technology, airspace integration and the regulatory framework come together to complement one another, he said.

“That’s the path forward,” Marshall added. “The next 10 years is going to be the golden age of commercial UAS drone delivery.”

An Aeronautics graduate, Marshall was the fourth speaker in the free and interactive Aviation Outlook series, presented by Embry-Riddle’s deans of aviation and moderated by assistant professor of Aeronautical Science Dr. Bob Thomas. The July 1 webinar is available for playback online. For recaps on prior guests, visit the Aviation Outlook website.

Read more about Marshall and other Eagles leading the autonomous systems revolution in Embry-Riddle's Lift

Posted In: Aviation | Unmanned Systems